Texas Supreme Court deals major blow to lawsuit challenging heartbeat abortion ban

Pro-life activists protest outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic on January 20, 2022, in Washington, D.C. The protest was organized by the Purple Sash Revolution and Priests for Life, calling for defunding and replacing of Planned Parenthood. On Friday, thousands of anti-abortion activists are expected in Washington, DC for the annual March For Life. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Texas’ highest court has recommended that a lawsuit against the state’s law banning abortion as early as six weeks gestation should be dismissed because state officials are not enforcing the pro-life measure.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday in the case of Whole Woman’s Health et al. v. Jackson et al. that officials at state medical licensing boards cannot enforce the law, which bans nearly all abortions after an unborn baby’s heartbeat can be detected, which is usually around six weeks into a pregnancy.

Since the law allows for private citizens to enforce the ban instead, the decision by the state’s highest court effectively defeats the lawsuit brought by pro-choice groups.

Texas Right to Life, a pro-life group that supports the heartbeat abortion ban, celebrated the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in a statement telling supporters that the ruling was a “big victory.” 

“We have said from the beginning that abortionists’ lawsuit should be dismissed,” the lobbying group stated. 

“The Legislature clearly never intended state agencies to participate in enforcing the Texas Heartbeat Act, and the Supreme Court of Texas agreed. This is not the final step in the journey, as the case will now return to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it affirms a positive path forward for the historic law.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which helped to bring the litigation against the law, concludes that the lawsuit is effectively dead. Among the legal attempts to stop the Texas law, the abortion-rights group contends this lawsuit was “once the most promising.” 

But now, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the lawsuit can’t proceed against the Texas Medical Board and state licensing officials, the only remaining defendants.

Although the case will return to the 5th Circuit, the CRC said in a statement that it expects the challenge will be “thrown out” in light of Friday’s ruling. 

“This ruling comes after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed most of the case in December 2021, allowing only a small part of the case to move forward in lower court,” the CRC statement explains. “Today’s ruling will result in dismissal of the remaining portion of the challenge to the 6-week ban, meaning S.B. 8 will likely remain in effect for the foreseeable future.”

CRC President and CEO Nancy Northup said the ruling shows that “[w]e are in a moment of crisis not only for reproductive rights but for our justice system and the rule of law.”

“With this ruling, the sliver of this case that we were left with is gone,” Northup said.

“An unconstitutional ban on abortion after six weeks continues unchecked in the state of Texas. The courts have allowed Texas to nullify a constitutional right. We will continue to do everything in our power to right this wrong.”

Last May, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8 into law, which prohibits most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, generally around six weeks into a pregnancy.

The law is enforced through private citizens who receive financial incentives to sue abortion providers or anyone else in Texas who helps a woman get an illegal abortion.

The law has survived multiple legal challenges, with the U.S. Supreme Court allowing the law to take effect last summer and also refusing to block the legislation last December.

According to data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the number of abortions in the state the month the law took effect dropped by about 60% compared to the month before.

In its statement, Texas Right to Life said it is “grateful that the Texas Heartbeat Act will continue saving thousands of lives, and we’re hopeful that the judiciary will soon pave the way to protect all preborn children by overturning Roe v. Wade.”

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