WASHINGTON – Advocates on both sides of the nation's divisive abortion issue were watching for signs Wednesday about whether the Supreme Court's handling of a Texas ban will offer clues about an even more significant case on the horizon later this year.
A Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks took effect at midnight after the Supreme Court did not immediately rule in the case. That ruling is expected to be handed down as soon as Wednesday.
If allowed to remain in force, the law would be the most dramatic restriction on abortion rights in the United States since the high court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion across the country in 1973.
The high court is expected to rule in the Texas matter on an emergency basis as it is also preparing to consider a case challenging Mississippi's ban on most abortions after 15 weeks. While the Texas dispute involves a technical question of whether to temporarily block the law, the Mississippi case could significantly weaken Roe.
The Mississippi case could be argued at the court later this year.
"Make no mistake, this law paves the way for anti-choice extremists to turn their dystopian vision into a horrifying reality – not just in Texas – but around the country," said NARAL Pro-Choice America Acting President Adrienne Kimmell.
With six conservatives on the nine-member court for the first time in decades and confusion over a 2019 Supreme Court decision scrambling lower courts, anti-abortion lawmakers and advocates are leaning in to test the limits of the 1973 Roe decision and a landmark 1992 case that controls when states may regulate the procedure.
About two dozen abortion-related cases are pending in federal appeals courts, according to the anti-abortion advocacy group Susan B. Anthony List.
Abortion providers in Texas filed their emergency appeal at the Supreme Court on Monday, challenging how lower courts handled the case. A federal appeals court based in New Orleans declined to block enforcement of the law, which took effect Wednesday, and also postponed a district court hearing to consider the providers' request.
The Texas law, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, bans abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur at six weeks. The law doesn't include exceptions for rape or incest but allows women to have the procedure for "medical emergencies." Similar laws in Georgia, Kentucky and other states have been blocked by federal courts.
What makes the Texas law different is its unusual enforcement process. Texas took an unusual approach in an effort to steer around the Supreme Court’s abortion precedent. Rather than having the state government enforce the ban, the Texas law encourages private citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman receive an abortion after a heartbeat is detected. A successful litigant in such a case could receive at least $10,000 from the abortion provider or others in damages.
Abortion opponents who wrote the law also made it difficult to challenge the law in court, in part because it’s hard to know whom to sue.
"Today is a historic and hopeful day,” said Human Coalition Action Texas Legislative Director Chelsey Youman, who supported the Texas law. "Texas is the first state to successfully protect the most vulnerable among us, preborn children, by outlawing abortion once their heartbeats are detected."
From the USA TODAY Editorial Board:Texas abortion law is an un-American infringement of rights
The Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which the high court agreed to hear in May nearly a year after it was filed, confounded court watchers because of the unusually long time the justices took in deciding whether to hear it. The decision to do so drew cheers from anti-abortion groups and alarm from others.
Mississippi's law could have profound implications for abortion rights because by setting a date after which abortions are no longer permitted, the state challenges the viability standard, which guarantees women a right to an abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb. Abortion rights groups say that if a 15-week ban is permitted, why not a 10-week ban, or a six-week ban such as the one in Texas.
Contributing: Associated Press