The US Supreme Court has refused to block a Texas law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy – the country’s most far-reaching curb on abortions in half a century.
With a 5-4 vote, justices denied an emergency request by abortion and women’s health providers for an injunction that would stop the legislation from being enforced while it is challenged in the courts.
The Texas law, signed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott in May and which took effect yesterday, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect a fetal heartbeat, usually at about six weeks and before most women know they are pregnant.
Most abortions in the state are now illegal.
Private citizens can sue abortion providers and facilitators for at least $10,000 to enforce the law.
Those liable even include anyone who drives a woman to a clinic so she can terminate her pregnancy.
Pro-life activists have hailed the law as “vital”, while pro-choice groups have vowed to fight it.
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“Starting today, every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from the ravages of abortion,” Mr Abbott said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“Texas will always defend the right to life.”
US President Joe Biden condemned the new law and pledged his administration would fight to protect women’s constitutional rights – but did not specify how he would do so.
He said the law “outrageously” gives private citizens the power “to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion”, adding that it would “significantly impair” women’s access to the healthcare they need.
At least 12 other Republican-led states have recently enacted bans on the procedure early in pregnancy – but all have been blocked from coming into force.
The American Medical Association (AMA) said it was deeply disturbed by “this egregious law” and disappointed by the Supreme Court’s failure to intervene.
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Dr Gerald E Harmon, AMA president, said it “places bounties on physicians and healthcare workers simply for delivering care”.
Clinics said the law rules out 85% of abortions in Texas and will force many facilities to close.
Planned Parenthood is among the providers that have ceased scheduling abortions beyond six weeks from conception.
Abortion rights supporters say it will force many women to travel out of state for abortions, making them more expensive and inconvenient.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research organisation that supports abortion rights, said women would now have to drive an average of 248 miles to reach a clinic.