Texas bans most abortions: U.S. Supreme Court yet to take action on emergency appeal

A Texas law banning most abortions in the state took effect at midnight, but the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to act on an emergency appeal to put the law on hold.

Law prohibits abortions after 6 weeks or once a fetal heartbeat can be detected

This file photo shows abortion rights activists in Washington, D.C., after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 27, 2016. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

A Texas ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy took effect on Wednesday after the U.S. Supreme Court did not act on a request by abortion rights groups to block the law, which would prohibit the vast majority of abortions in the state.

Abortion providers worked until almost the midnight deadline, when the court's inaction allowed the most restrictive ban in the country to be enforced while litigation continues in the groups' lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

The law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks and before most women know they're pregnant. It amounts to a near-total ban on abortion procedures given that 85 per cent to 90 per cent of abortions occur after six weeks of pregnancy, and would likely force many clinics to close, the groups said.

Such a ban has never been permitted in any state since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, in 1973, they said.

It's part of a broader push by Republicans across the country to impose new restrictions on abortion. At least 12 other states have enacted bans early in pregnancy, but all have been blocked from going into effect.

$10,000 'bounty'

The law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue abortion providers and anyone who "aids or abets" an abortion after six weeks. Citizens who win such lawsuits would be entitled to at least $10,000.

Abortion providers say the law could lead to hundreds of costly lawsuits that would be logistically difficult to defend.

WATCH | Texas Fetal heartbeat abortion law takes effect:

Texas 'fetal heartbeat' abortion law takes effect

2 years ago
Duration 3:37
The Texas law bans abortion once the rhythmic contracting of fetal cardiac tissue can be detected, sometimes before a woman realizes she is pregnant. There are no exceptions for rape or incest but exceptions can be made for a medical emergency.

"Starting today, every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from the ravages of abortion," Abbott said in a statement posted on Twitter. "Texas will always defend the right to life."

But protests were quick.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that the law "blatantly violates the constitutional right established under Roe v. Wade and upheld as precedent for nearly half a century."

He said the law "outrageously" gives private citizens the power "to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, seen speaking in Dallas in 2018, signed one of the country's most restrictive laws on abortion in May. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Likewise, the American Medical Association said it was deeply disturbed by the "egregious law" and disappointed by the Supreme Court's inaction.

At Whole Women's Health in Fort Worth, clinic staff worked up to midnight, serving 25 patients in the 2-1/2 hours before the deadline, said spokesperson Jackie Dilworth. 

The national group said its Texas locations, also including Austin and McKinney, remained open on Wednesday.

"We are providing all abortion medication and abortion procedures, but as long as the patient has no embryonic or fetal cardiac activity," Dilworth said. "Our doors are still open, and we're doing everything we can to come within the law but still provide abortion care to those who need us."

Planned Parenthood and other women's health providers, doctors and clergy members challenged the law in federal court in Austin in July, contending it violated the constitutional right to an abortion.

There have been many protests against the state's abortion law, including one by Paxton Smith, a Dallas valedictorian who made headlines in June when she delivered an abortion-rights speech in lieu of a speech approved by her school administrators. (Juan Figueroa/The Associated Press)

In a legal filing, Texas officials told the justices to reject the abortion providers' request, saying the law "may never be enforced against them by anyone."

"Texas Right to Life is thankful that the Texas Heartbeat Act is now in effect. We are now the first state ever to enforce a heartbeat law. We still await word from SCOTUS," spokesperson Kimberlyn Schwartz said in a statement, using an acronym for the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Texas has long had some of the nation's toughest abortion restrictions, including a sweeping law passed in 2013 that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down, but not before more than half of the state's 40-plus abortion clinics closed.

Lawmakers also are moving forward in an ongoing special session in Texas with proposed new restrictions on medication abortion, a method using pills that accounts for roughly 40 per cent of abortions in the U.S.