Denver Newsroom, Apr 27, 2022 / 14:19 pm (CNA).
A federal court on Tuesday ordered a lower court to dismiss all legal challenges brought against the enforcement mechanism of a Texas abortion law, a move which a pro-life group called a “substantial pro-life victory.”
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on April 26 remanded the case, brought by a number of abortion providers and pro-abortion organizations, to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, with instructions to dismiss all challenges to the private enforcement provisions of the Texas Heartbeat Act.
Texas Alliance for Life characterized the ruling as a victory, but noted that thousands of abortions are still performed each year in Texas because of the legal framework of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
“We look forward to a ruling by the Supreme Court in June that could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. If that happens, another law, the Human Life Protection Act, will go into effect, completely protecting unborn babies from abortion beginning at conception,” said executive director Joe Pojman.
The Texas Heartbeat Act, in effect since September 2021, bans abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat except in medical emergencies. Instead of providing for enforcement by the state — which would likely be declared unconstitutional in court — the law relies on private lawsuits filed by citizens to enforce the ban. This framework allows for awards of at least $10,000 for plaintiffs who successfully sue those who perform or aid and abet abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
Abortion providers immediately sued to block the law’s enforcement, but their arguments have largely been rebuffed in court, though the back-and-forth in the courts over the law makes for dizzying reading.
In a 5-4 decision issued Sept. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the law from taking effect, but in late October decided to consider two challenges— one brought by the federal government, and the other by abortion providers— to the law on an expedited basis.
The federal lawsuit, which the Department of Justice filed in early September 2021, resulted in the law being temporarily blocked Oct. 6. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals then issued a ruling Oct. 8 reversing that decision, allowing the law to go back into effect.
The Justice Department then appealed to the Supreme Court, which on Dec. 10, 2021 dismissed the case as being improvidently granted, meaning the case should not have been brought before it.
The April circuit court ruling comes following a March 2022 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, which found nothing in the legislation itself granting licensing officials the authority to enforce the law, “either directly or indirectly.” The abortion providers had argued that state medical licensing officials had the power to enforce the law, which would have been unconstitutional. Instead, the Texas Supreme Court decision noted, the act expressly excludes state officials from those who can bring civil suits to enforce the act.
The Heartbeat Act has proven successful in reducing the number of legal abortions obtained by women within the state — according to data released in October by a group of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, the law led to a 50% reduction in the number of abortions in the first month it was in effect, compared to the same month in 2020.
However, data analysis from the New York Times has suggested that many women who would otherwise have sought a surgical abortion in Texas traveled to other states, or made use of mail-order abortion pills. Texas Alliance for Life notes that the abortion industry still “thrives” in Texas, with all of the state’s nearly two dozen abortion facilities remaining in operation and abortions performed at the rate of 27,000 per year.
Pro-life leaders have said that the Texas law’s success in court should lead more pro-life state legislatures to follow Texas’ lead, a process that’s already underway in Idaho, Florida, South Dakota, Ohio, and a growing number of other states.
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