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Court won’t stop Texas abortion ban, but lets clinics sue

U.S. Supreme Court (AP file photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday (Dec. 10) left in place Texas’ ban on most abortions, but ruled that clinics can sue over the state’s most restrictive abortion law in the nation.

The court acted more than a month after hearing arguments over the law that makes abortion illegal after a heartbeat can be detected in the unborn baby. That’s around six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

The law has been in place since Sept. 1.

The same federal judge who already has once blocked the law, known as S.B. 8, almost certainly will be asked to do so again. Then his decision would be reviewed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has twice voted to allow enforcement of the abortion ban.

Gorsuch wrote that abortion providers have to follow the same rules that apply to people asserting other constitutional rights. “The Court has consistently applied these requirements whether the challenged law in question is said to chill the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, or any other right. The petitioners are not entitled to a special exemption,” he wrote.

Ed Whelan, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, calls the decision a loss for abortion providers. “The only defendants whom they can pursue for relief are state licensing officials who might pursue them down the road for violations of the Texas Heartbeat Act,” he said.

Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, reacted to the decision by email, saying, “Today’s ruling is a procedural one that, regrettably, allows the case to move forward at the lower court level. It deals with answering what Texas individuals may be sued and little else. Even Justice Gorsuch acknowledged the larger questions about constitutionality are not part of this ruling.”

In the law’s first month of operation, a study published by researchers at the University of Texas found that the number of abortions statewide fell by 50 percent compared with September 2020. The study was based on data from 19 of the state’s 24 abortion clinics, according to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

Texas residents who left the state seeking an abortion also have had to travel well beyond neighboring states, where clinics cannot keep up with the increase in patients from Texas, according to a separate study by the Guttmacher Institute.

“The Court should have put an end to this madness months ago, before S.B. 8 first went into effect. It failed to do so then, and it fails again today,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a separate opinion.

Leatherwood said pro-life advocates across the country should remained focused on Dobbs vs. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization case that was argued in the Supreme Court Dec. 1.

“A favorable ruling there could overturn the disastrous precedents set by the Roe and Casey decisions and allow our states to begin enshrining a right to life across the nation. Christians should be praying for wisdom for the justices to reach that outcome,” Leatherwood told Baptist Press.

The Jackson case ruling is expected next summer.

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. With reporting by Brandon Porter, associate vice president for convention news with the SBC Executive Committee.