The U.S. Supreme Court handed a landmark victory to the pro-life community Wednesday night by refusing to block a unique Texas law that bans abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected and leaves enforcement of the law up to private citizens.
The law bans an estimated 85 percent of abortions, pro-choice groups say.
In a 5-4 decision, the majority said abortion clinics had "raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue" but had not demonstrated that the high court could legally get involved.
"Federal courts enjoy the power to enjoin individuals tasked with enforcing laws, not the laws themselves," the opinion said.
The majority opinion, which was less than two pages in length, comprised the votes of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has voted to uphold pro-life laws in the past, joined the court's liberal bloc and said in a dissent he would have put the law on hold to give courts more time to consider the issue.
The five justices in the majority said they acknowledged the "complex and novel" legal issues involved and said their opinion was not reaching "any conclusion about the constitutionality" of the law. Further, they said their opinion "in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts."
The law requires doctors to conduct a test for a fetal heartbeat. If one is detected, then the doctor is prohibited from performing an abortion. It allows exceptions for medical emergencies.
Further, the text of the law prohibits state officials from enforcing the law. Instead, it allows a citizen to sue anyone who "performs or induces an abortion" or "knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion." The law allows civil damages of at least $10,000 for each suit.
Roberts called the law "unprecedented" and raised the question of whether a "state can avoid responsibility for its laws."
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent, asserted that "a woman has a federal constitutional right to obtain an abortion." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her own dissent, called the majority's action "stunning."
"Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand," Sotomayor wrote. "... It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry."
Breyer and Sotomayor each wrote "I dissent" instead of the traditional and cordial "I respectfully dissent" – a fact that underscored the deep divisions within the court.
Texas Right to Life celebrated the majority's opinion and said it is "optimistic" that the law will survive future legal scrutiny. The organization called it a "phenomenal victory for tens of thousands of preborn children who will be spared the evil of abortion."
"The Texas Heartbeat Act is the strongest Pro-Life law to take effect since the unjust ruling of Roe v. Wade," Texas Right to Life said.
Erin Forsythe, vice president of strategic programs for the pro-life ministry Care Net, said crisis pregnancy centers in Texas are ready to assist women.
"In 2019 alone, they provided women, men, youth, and families with $8.8 million in services that empower healthy choices," Forsythe said. "Regardless of changes in law or court decisions, I am confident that these centers will be here for any woman or couple facing decisions related to an unexpected or unexpectedly difficult pregnancy."
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Brian P Irwin
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.