Texas appeals judge's temporary injunction barring enforcement of abortion law

The preliminary injunction was issued Wednesday night.

Video byElisa Tang
October 06, 2021, 11:12 PM

Texas has appealed the district court judge's ruling issuing an emergency injunction on the state's restrictive abortion law to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction Wednesday night barring enforcement of Texas' controversial new abortion law.

The statute, which went into effect on Sept. 1, after the Supreme Court refused to block it, bans physicians from providing abortions once they detect a so-called fetal heartbeat -- which can be seen on an ultrasound as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

PHOTO: People take part in the Women's March ATX rally at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, Oct. 2, 2021.
People take part in the Women's March ATX rally at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, Oct. 2, 2021.
Stephen Spillman/AP

The unprecedented law, known as SB8, effectively prevents women in Texas from obtaining pre-viability abortions, which are a protected right under the U.S. Constitution -- a fact the judge pointed to in his motion granting the Biden administration's request for an injunction.

"From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution," U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman wrote in the 113-page ruling. "That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right."

In addition to the emergency injunction, Pitman denied Texas' request to put a pause on his ruling while the state appealed it.

"Tonight’s ruling is an important step forward toward restoring the constitutional rights of women across the state of Texas. S.B. 8 not only blatantly violates the right to safe and legal abortion established under Roe v. Wade, but it creates a scheme to allow private citizens to interfere with that right and to evade judicial review," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Wednesday night. "The fight has only just begun, both in Texas and in many states across this country where women’s rights are currently under attack. That’s why the President supports codifying Roe v. Wade, why he has directed a whole-of-government response to S.B. 8, and why he will continue to stand side-by-side with women across the country to protect their constitutional rights."

Under the law, private citizens can sue a person they "reasonably believe" provided an illegal abortion or assisted someone in getting it in the state. Texas attorneys said in court Friday they had no clear way of knowing how they'd even enforce an injunction, as the law is crafted to prevent any state official, other than judges, from being responsible for enforcement.

Pitman outlined the criteria in his ruling, writing that the court "has the authority to enjoin the private individuals who act on behalf of the State or act in active concert with the State," and that "injunction would be commensurate in scope with S.B. 8's grant of enforcement power."

PHOTO: Women's rights advocates take part in the nationwide Women's March, held after Texas rolled out a near-total ban on abortion procedures and access to abortion-inducing medications, in Austin, Texas, Oct. 2, 2021.
Women's rights advocates take part in the nationwide Women's March, held after Texas rolled out a near-total ban on abortion procedures and access to abortion-inducing medications, in Austin, Texas, Oct. 2, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Furthermore, the state "must publish this preliminary injunction on all of its public-facing court websites with a visible, easy-to-understand instruction to the public that S.B. 8 lawsuits will not be accepted by Texas courts" and "shall inform all state court judges and state court clerks of this preliminary injunction and distribute this preliminary injunction to all state court judges and state court clerks," he wrote.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the ruling "a victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law."

"It is the foremost responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Constitution," Garland said in a statement. "We will continue to protect constitutional rights against all who would seek to undermine them."

Since the law went into effect, women have had to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to obtain an abortion, inundating neighboring states' abortion clinics. Abortion providers in Texas also warned that due to the law, some clinics may have to close down for good.

For now, it's unclear if providers in the state will resume providing abortions after a "fetal heartbeat" is detected, according to one law expert.

"One of the many novel provisions in #SB8 provides that abortions performed while a preliminary injunction is in effect can *still* be a basis for liability if the injunction is later stayed/reversed," University of Texas constitutional law professor Steve Vladeck said in a post on Twitter.

VIDEO: What you need to know about the Texas abortion law
Kate Shaw, ABC News Contributor and Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law, breaks down the novel aspects of the state's ban against abortion and what it could mean for the future of Roe v. Wade.

Abortion rights advocates expressed relief at the ruling, while noting the block on the law is only temporary.

"The clinics and doctors we represent hope to resume full abortion services as soon as they are able, even though the threat of being sued retroactively will not be completely gone until SB 8 is struck down for good," Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

Anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life reacted to the ruling Wednesday night, saying it was "not surprised."

"This is the legacy of Roe v. Wade: Judges catering to the abortion industry, crafting a conclusion first & then searching the depths of legal literature for a rationale later," the organization said on Twitter.

"Pro-Life attorneys are expected to appeal the decision immediately, in which we expect a fair hearing," it added.

Several state lawmakers have said they plan to act to mirror the near-total abortion ban -- though Pitman said the preliminary injunction, "should it stand, discourages states from doing so."

"[If] legislators know they cannot accomplish political agendas that curtail or eliminate constitutional rights and intentionally remove the legal remedy to challenge it, then other states are less likely to engage in copycat legislation," he wrote.

ABC News' Alexander Mallin, Devin Dwyer and Ivan Pereira contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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