By Julia Harte and Maria Caspani
(Reuters) – A day after a federal judge blocked Texas’ near-total abortion ban, at least one provider in the state said it had resumed services on Thursday for patients seeking to terminate pregnancies beyond the law’s limit of about six weeks.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, told reporters that since the law went into effect on Sept. 1, the provider with four clinics in Texas had put patients on a waiting list if their pregnancies had advanced beyond the legal limit.
“So those folks were able to come in and we did provide them with abortion care today,” Hagstrom Miller said during a call on with reporters.
She did not say which clinics had resumed services or how many abortions they had provided.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin on Wednesday blocked the state from enforcing the law while litigation over its legality continues. The Republican-backed measure empowers private citizens to enforce the ban, and Texas immediately appealed the ruling to the conservative-leaning Fifth Circuit Appeals Court.
The law has become a flashpoint in a national battle over abortion rights as Republican lawmakers in other states try to pass similar legislation. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Mississippi case testing Roe v. Wade, its landmark 1973 decision that established the nationwide right to abortion access.
Drexel University law professor David Cohen said Texas clinics that resume their previous abortion services while the law is blocked will be in a “very precarious position.” A clause in the law says providers can still be sued if the law goes back into effect after being struck down by a court.
Cohen said that even if Pitman’s injunction against the law were upheld by the Supreme Court on appeal, it could still be dissolved by a subsequent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, because that decision was the basis for Pitman’s ruling.
Hagstrom Miller said the retroactive clause was concerning for many medical professionals.
“Any abortion you provide, even with an injunction, could be seen as criminal a year from now, six months from now – and you could be held accountable for every one of those. It’s pretty daunting to think about that,” she said.
Anti-abortion advocates said that if Pitman’s ruling is reversed on appeal, they will sue providers who have resumed abortion services.
“As this case develops, if there’s an opportunity for lawsuits or for enforcement in the future, that’s something that the pro-life movement is very interested in,” said John Seago, legislative director for anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life.
Other Texas abortion providers acknowledged they were worried about the state’s vow to appeal the injunction to a conservative-leaning appeals court.
“Given the state’s appeal, our health centers may not have the days or even weeks it could take to navigate new patients through Texas’s onerous abortion restrictions,” the leaders of Planned Parenthood South Texas, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood Greater Texas said in a joint statement.
Molly Duane, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents several Texas clinics fighting the law, said abortion providers were in a difficult situation.
“There are independent providers across the state that are working to reopen full services and are doing so wary of the fact that the Fifth Circuit may take away this injunction at any moment,” she said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)