The United States Department of Justice has asked a federal court in Texas to temporarily stop the enforcement of a new state law that bans most abortions.
The Texas law, known as SB8, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity – usually around six weeks, a point before which some women do not even know they are pregnant. The law allows private citizens to sue those providing or assisting in abortions performed after about six weeks.
In Tuesday night’s emergency motion in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division, the DoJ said: “A court may enter a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction as a means of preventing harm to the movant before the court can fully adjudicate the claims in dispute.”
The motion comes after the DoJ filed a lawsuit in Texas last week asking a federal judge to declare the law invalid because it unlawfully infringes on the constitutional rights of women and violates the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which says federal law supersedes state law.
Courts have blocked other states from imposing similar restrictions, but Texas’s law differs significantly because it leaves enforcement to private citizens through civil lawsuits instead of criminal prosecutors.
The law went into effect earlier this month, after the country’s super-majority conservative Supreme Court declined an emergency appeal from abortion providers asking that the law be stayed.
“When other states have enacted laws abridging reproductive rights to the extent that SB8 does, courts have enjoined enforcement of the laws before they could take effect,” the DoJ said in the motion.
“In an effort to avoid that result, Texas devised an unprecedented scheme that seeks to deny women and providers the ability to challenge SB8 in federal court. This attempt to shield a plainly unconstitutional law from review cannot stand,” it said.
The case has been assigned to US District Judge Robert Pitman.
President Joe Biden and prominent Democrats have vowed to counter the law.
The Texas law permits anyone to bring a lawsuit against an individual who provides or assists in an abortion after cardiac activity can be detected.
It allows for a wide interpretation of what constitutes assisting an abortion and the person taking legal action does not need to have a connection to the woman seeking the abortion. They could be entitled to at least $10,000 in damages if they prevail in court.
The law does not include exceptions for rape or sexual assault.
The Texas law is the nation’s biggest curb to abortion since the Supreme Court affirmed in the landmark 1973 decision Roe v Wade that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.
Abortion providers have said they will comply, but already some of Texas’s roughly two dozen abortion clinics have temporarily stopped offering abortion services altogether.
Clinics in neighbouring states, meanwhile, have seen a surge in patients from Texas.