President Joe Biden's administration on Thursday sued Texas, seeking to block enforcement of a new law almost entirely banning abortion in the state, as Democrats fear the right to abortion established almost 50 years ago may be at risk.
The US Supreme Court last week let stand the Texas law banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women realize they are pregnant.
Although that decision did not address the constitutionality of the Texas law, it represented a major victory for social conservatives who have been trying to ban abortion since the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established the constitutional right to the procedure.
Attorney General Merrick Garland called the Texas law "clearly unconstitutional."
"This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear," Garland said. "If it prevails, it may become a model for action in other areas by other states."
The Texas law relies on private citizens to enforce it by filing civil lawsuits against people who help a woman obtain an abortion after six weeks, whether that be a doctor who performs the procedure or a cabbie who drives a woman to a clinic.
The law allows people who sue to receive at least $10,000 and makes no exceptions for rape or incest, although there are narrowly defined exemptions for the mother's health. Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott defended the law this week, saying that the state would "eliminate all rapists."
"Texas passed a law that ensures that the life of every child with a heartbeat will be spared from the ravages of abortion," Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said in a statement. "We are confident that the courts will uphold and protect that right to life."
The online court docket initially said the case was assigned to US District Judge Lee Yeakel in the Western District of Texas. But the docket was changed to US District Judge Robert Pitman. Pitman, appointed by former President Barack Obama, was in August due to consider blocking the Texas law from taking effect but an appeals court halted the proceeding.
Focus on Mississippi case
The Supreme Court's decision not to block the Texas law last week left abortion-rights activists worried that the court, on which conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, may be open to overturning Roe when it hears a case involving a Mississippi abortion ban later this year.
Abortion opponents predicted that the Biden administration challenge to the Texas law would ultimately fail. "Joe Biden has a long record of failures with protecting the unborn and pregnant women," said Texas Right to Life Vice President Elizabeth Graham. "His DOJ will quickly find that they do not have jurisdiction to stop the Texas Heartbeat Act."
Because it takes several weeks before pregnancy can be detected on a standard urine test, Texas women could have just a week or two to seek an abortion before being prohibited from doing so under the law. Some 85% to 90% of abortions occur after six weeks of pregnancy, and leaving the ban in place could cause clinics to close, abortion-rights groups warned.
Whole Woman's Health, which has four Texas clinics, praised the Biden administration move.
"It's a monumental time for the federal government to step in and restore all people's rights to safe, high-quality abortion care," Amy Hagstrom Miller, the group's chief executive, said in a statement.
A majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. Some 52% said it should be legal in most or all cases, with just 36% saying it should be illegal in most or all cases.
But it remains a deeply polarizing issue, with a majority of Democrats supporting abortion rights and a majority of Republicans opposing them.