A divided United States Supreme Court refused to block a Texas law that activists say effectively bans abortions in the nation’s second-largest state.
An abortion is a medical operation used to end a pregnancy and cause the death of the fetus.
Some experts say the Texas law puts the power of enforcement in the hands of private citizens. And it also offers money for them to do so.
Last May, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas signed legislation banning abortions in the state once a fetal heartbeat is discovered. This usually happens at six weeks. Activists say that is before many women know that they are pregnant.
On Monday, a group of abortion activists asked the nation’s highest court to block enforcement of the law. The group said the Texas law would bar at least 85 percent of abortions in the state. They said it would likely cause many clinics to close. The group asked the court to intervene while it is fighting the constitutionality of the law in lower courts.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court refused to block the Texas law by a vote of five to four. The majority issued an order saying that opponents had “raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law.” But it said that was not enough. The majority explained that “it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law…that might permit our intervention.” The named defendants, in this case, are Texas state public officials.
The court's majority, however, said the decision was "not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law" and permitted legal cases against it to continue.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent, called the Texas law “unprecedented.” He wrote that by leaving the enforcement of the law to private citizens, the Texas law aims to protect the State from responsibility. He questioned whether a state can avoid responsibility for its law in such a way.
What’s in the Texas law?
The Texas law is one of several “heartbeat” laws enacted in states where the Republican Party has a majority. At least 12 other states, including Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Mississippi, have passed laws that place restrictions on abortions this year.
The legislation is considered part of an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade. That is the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Abortion laws are often enforced by state and local officials. But the Texas law permits private citizens to bring legal actions in state court against anyone involved in an abortion, other than the pregnant woman.
Actions could be brought against doctors, office workers and others involved in helping with abortions. That could include anyone who drives a woman to a clinic to get an abortion. Under the law, anyone who successfully brings legal action against another person would receive at least $10,000.
Harold Krent is a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. He told Reuters, "It is a little bit like the Wild West." Krent compared it to an earlier time in U.S. history when private citizens enforced laws when the government was limited and there was little organized law enforcement.
Following the high court’s order, Abbott said in a statement, “Starting today, every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from… abortion.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement, however, that the law “…violates the constitutional right established under Roe v. Wade.” He said the law gives private citizens the power “to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion.”
Dr. Gerald E. Harmon is president of the American Medical Association. He said the Texas law bans nearly all abortions in the state. He said it interferes with the relationship between people and their doctors. He also said it “places bounties on physicians and health care workers simply for delivering care.”
Can the law be overturned?
The U.S. Supreme Court has already agreed to study a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In that case, Mississippi and its supporters have urged the court to formally overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Texas case will now return to lower courts, where the Center for Reproductive Rights is questioning the constitutionality of the law.
In May, the Pew Research Center released a public opinion study showing that a 59 percent majority of Americans say abortion should be legal. That center said that opinion has remained the same since 1995.
As for those providing abortions like Dr. Anuj Khattar, he told Reuters, "I feel like there's a bounty on my head and I don’t want to play this game.”
I’m Jonathan Evans.
Hai Do wrote this report for Learning English with additional reporting from The Associated Press, Reuters and other sources. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
clinic –n. a place where people go to get medical help
regarding –prep. about; related to
conclusion –n. a final decision or judgement; an opinion or decision formed after a period of thought or research
dissent –n. (legal) a statement by a judge or justice giving the reasons why he or she does not agree with the decision made by the court
bounty –n. (legal) an amount of money given to someone as a reward for catching a criminal
deliver –v. to provide or produce something
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.