US Supreme Court permits challenge to Texas six-week abortion ban

Biden administration asked US highest court to block the law

People hold signs during the Women's March 'Hold The Line For Abortion Justice' at the US Supreme Court in Washington. AFP
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The US Supreme Court on Friday allowed abortion providers to pursue a legal challenge to a ban on most abortions in Texas, with the fate of the Republican-backed measure that allows private citizens to enforce it now hanging in the balance.

The justices, who heard arguments on the case on November 1, lifted a block on lower court proceedings, paving the way for a federal judge to formally block the law.

The conservative-majority court on September 1 had declined to halt the law. The court, in a separate case, dismissed a challenge brought by President Joe Biden's administration.

Abortion providers and the Biden administration had asked the Supreme Court to block the Texas law while the litigation continues, but the justices opted to leave it in place for now.

The Supreme Court has yet to give a decision on another major abortion rights case from Mississippi that could lead to the overturning of the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalised the procedure nationwide.

The Texas measure is the nation's most restrictive abortion law and bans abortions at about six weeks, a point in time when many women do not yet realise they are pregnant, with no exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

It is one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed by Republicans at the state level in recent years.

The court in the Texas case, in an 8-1 decision written by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, ruled that the challenge was allowed under a 1908 Supreme Court precedent that said state laws can be challenged in federal court by suing state government officials.

Texas had sought to exploit a loophole in that earlier ruling by saying no state officials could enforce it, but the Supreme Court said the challengers could pursue their case by naming state licensing officials as the accused.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on that part of the ruling, saying he would have dismissed the lawsuit altogether.

The Texas law, known as SB 8, enables private citizens to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in receiving an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits under the law.

The Biden administration has called it a “bounty”.

That feature made it more difficult to directly sue the state to challenge the law's legality, helping shield the measure from being immediately blocked.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Updated: December 10, 2021, 7:51 PM