Washington — A controversial Texas law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy went into effect at midnight after the U.S. Supreme Court did not act on a request from pro-abortion rights groups and providers to block it before early Wednesday.
The law is one of the nation's most restrictive, prohibiting nearly all abortions in the state, the abortion rights groups warned. The high court is expected to issue a decision on the bid from the providers.
President Biden called the law "extreme" in a statement Wednesday, and said it "blatantly violates the constitutional right established under Roe v. Wade and upheld as precedent for nearly half a century."
"The Texas law will significantly impair women's access to the health care they need, particularly for communities of color and individuals with low incomes," the president said. "My administration is deeply committed to the constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade nearly five decades ago and will protect and defend that right."
Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, which operates four abortion clinics in Texas and is leading the case before the Supreme Court, told reporters in a call Wednesday that "we are now in an unprecedented and complicated situation."
Miller said the clinics were providing abortions until 11:56 p.m. and had 27 patients in their waiting rooms as of 10 p.m., all of whom were seen.
Anti-abortion rights protesters were outside the clinics Tuesday, she said, and they called police and the fire department several times in an attempt to get them shut down.
Now that the six-week ban has taken effect absent action from the Supreme Court, Miller said the clinics are "fully compliant" with the new law, and can provide abortions for about 10% of women seeking to terminate a pregnancy.
"At least for now, the state of Texas has become the first state since Roe v. Wade to enact and actually have a six-week ban that goes into effect," Marc Hearron, senior counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights and lead attorney on the case, told reporters.
In addition to outlawing abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — before most women know they're pregnant — the measureagainst anyone who provides an abortion after six weeks or helps a woman access the procedure, such as a friend who drives a woman to obtain an abortion, or clinic staff. Those found in violation of the law are required to pay at least $10,000 to the person who successfully brought the suit.
Miller said the law creates a "bounty system," under which anyone in Texas can "call into question anyone who supports access to abortion."
The pro-abortion rights organizations warned the Supreme Court on Monday that, if permitted to take effect, the ban "would immediately and catastrophically reduce abortion access in Texas." The groups included Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU and abortion providers. They estimated that at least 85% of women who undergo abortions in Texas are at least six weeks pregnant and warned the law would force many clinics to close.
"Patients who can scrape together resources will be forced to attempt to leave the state to obtain an abortion, and many will be delayed until later in pregnancy," lawyers representing the abortion providers wrote in a filing with the Supreme Court. "The remaining Texans who need an abortion will be forced to remain pregnant against their will or to attempt to end their pregnancies without medical supervision."
But Texas officials argued the claims raised by the abortion providers and advocacy groups were "hyperbolic" and said they "have not shown that they will be personally harmed by a bill that may never be enforced against them by anyone, much less by the governmental defendants."
"If any party is facing irreparable injury in this application, it is respondents, along with the state they serve and its people," they said in a filing with the Supreme Court.
Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed the measure into law in May, with Texas joining a dozen other states that have passed laws banning abortions at early stages in pregnancy. Known as "heartbeat bills," they seek to ban the procedures after a fetal heartbeat can first be detected.
But pro-abortion rights advocates argue the measures, which have been blocked by federal courts from taking effect, are unconstitutional and, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to an abortion. The court has found a woman can terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability, which generally occurs around 24 weeks.
Abortion rights groups argue the Texas law differs from the others because it incentivizes members of the public, rather than state officials, to enforce the ban, and they claim state lawmakers designed the measure that way to insulate it from federal judicial review.
The groups' request for Supreme Court action in the dispute came after a federal appeals court in Texas delayed a district court hearing set for Monday and denied their bid to speed up consideration of the case or stop the law from taking effect pending appeal.
The pro-abortion rights groups warned that without Supreme Court intervention, Texas would be allowed to ban abortions after six weeks before the justices consider a legal battle over anthis fall.
The Supreme Court said in May it would take up a blockbuster dispute over Mississippi's ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, presenting the first test of the limits of abortion access to go before the court's expanded conservative majority.
In that case, Republican-led states including Texas are calling for the court to overrule Roe and uphold Mississippi's 15-week ban.