Texas abortion provider resumes services after judge blocks near-total ban

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)

Abortion rights advocates sue Texas over 6-week abortion ban

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Several abortion rights groups filed a federal lawsuit in Texas on Tuesday seeking to block a new state law banning abortion after six weeks and enabling individuals to sue anyone who assists a woman in getting an abortion past that point.

The lawsuit contends the Texas law violates a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion before the fetus is viable and would cause “profound harm” to providers. It was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, women’s health provider Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and funds.

The law, signed on May 19 and due to take effect on Sept. 1, is one of nearly a dozen “heartbeat” abortion bans passed in Republican-led states. These laws seek to ban abortion once the rhythmic contracting of fetal cardiac tissue can be detected, often at six weeks – sometimes before a woman realizes she is pregnant.

Legal challenges have prevented these bans from taking effect. Judges have ruled that they violate Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to end her pregnancy before the fetus is viable, at around 24 weeks. Lawmakers who have voted for “heartbeat” measures have said they are intended to prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The high court has opened the door to possibly overturning or narrowing Roe v. Wade, agreeing in May to review Mississippi’s bid to ban abortions after 15 weeks in its next session.

Unlike other state bans, the Texas measure leaves its enforcement largely to citizens, who can sue anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets” an abortion that violates provisions of the law, “including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise.”

Citizens who win such lawsuits would be entitled to at least $10,000, the law states.

The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday argues that abortion providers and staff could be forced to defend hundreds of “vigilante enforcement lawsuits” under the law and would consequently “accrue catastrophic financial liability” and “suffer profound harm to their property, business, reputations and a deprivation of their own constitutional rights.”

“If this oppressive law takes effect, it will decimate abortion access in Texas-and that’s exactly what it is designed to do,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

The lawsuit targets state court judges, county clerks, the attorney general and state medical officials and asks that the federal court prevent those entities from enforcing the law or accepting citizen lawsuits.

“We’re confident in the innovative and carefully drafted nature of the Texas heartbeat act that it will be upheld and go into effect in September,” Texas Right to Life’s senior legislative associate Rebecca Parma said. The anti-abortion advocacy group’s East Chapter director is named as a defendant in the suit.

Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill and celebrated its passage in a video posted on Facebook.

“Our creator endowed us with the right to life, and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas we work to save those lives.” Abbott said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by David Gregorio)