The US Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, on Monday hears challenges to a Texas law that drastically limits access to abortion and which has sparked a fierce legal and political battle.
At 10:00 am (1400 GMT), the nine-member court will listen to two hours of arguments by parties in a closely watched case over the law, which bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and makes no exceptions for rape or incest — the strictest regulation of its kind in the country.
The Supreme Court was asked by abortion providers to block the law when it took effect on September 1, but the court declined to do so citing “procedural issues.”
Texas, the country’s second-largest state, is now being sued by Democratic President Joe Biden’s Justice Department and a coalition of abortion providers, who say the restrictions enacted are “plainly unconstitutional.”
Biden was among those who criticized the court for failing to tackle a law that “blatantly violates the constitutional right established under Roe v. Wade,” the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling enshrining a woman’s legal right to an abortion.
Laws restricting abortion have been passed in other Republican-led states but were struck down by the courts because they violated previous Supreme Court rulings that guaranteed the right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, which is typically around 22 to 24 weeks.
Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB8) bans abortions after a heartbeat can be detected in the womb, which is normally around six weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant.
The so-called “Texas Heartbeat Act” differs from other efforts in that it insulates the state by giving members of the public the right to sue doctors who perform abortions or anyone who helps facilitate them, once a heartbeat is detected.
They can be rewarded with $10,000 for initiating cases that land in court, prompting criticism that the state is encouraging people to take the law into their own hands.
“The most pernicious thing about the Texas law is it sort of creates a vigilante system, where people get rewards,” Biden said at the White House in September, adding the measure “sounds ridiculous, almost un-American.”
‘Why are they making me keep it?’
On the ground, clinics in Texas — fearful of potentially ruinous lawsuits — closed their doors, and the number of abortions in the state fell to 2,100 in September from 4,300 a year earlier, according to a University of Texas study.
Planned Parenthood, one of the largest providers of women’s health care in the nation, sent a 30-page legal brief to the court containing testimony from women and doctors affected by the Texas law.
One patient, identified as I.O., was 12 years old.
“The mother said they could not travel out of State — they had barely made it to the Texas health centre,” the brief said.
The 12-year-old was quoted as saying, “Mom, it was an accident. Why are they making me keep it?”
‘Is there a fifth vote?’
The Supreme Court could make a decision at any time after oral arguments but is widely expected to rule before hearing another abortion case on December 1.
In that case, the court will hear a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks.
At least four justices appear ready to block the Texas law: the three liberals on the court and Chief Justice John Roberts, who expressed concerns about SB8 when it previously appeared before the court.
“Now the question is, ‘Is there a fifth vote?’” Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, asked on a podcast.