A US judge has temporarily blocked a controversial new law in Texas that effectively bans women from having an abortion in the state.
District Judge Robert Pitman granted a request by the Biden administration to prevent any enforcement of the law while its legality is being challenged.
The law was put forward and approved by Republican politicians in Texas. The White House praised the ruling as an important step to restoring women’s constitutional rights.
Judge Pitman, of Austin, wrote in a 113-page opinion that, from the moment the law came into effect on 1 September, “women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution”.
“This court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right,” he said.
Whole Woman’s Health, which runs several clinics in Texas, said it was making plans to resume abortions “as soon as possible”.
But the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life accused judges of “catering to the abortion industry” and called for a “fair hearing” at the next stage.
This is the first legal setback for Texas since the law was implemented, and state officials immediately appealed Judge Pitman’s ruling.
President Joe Biden’s administration took legal action after the conservative-majority Supreme Court declined to prevent Texas from enacting the law. The justice department filed an emergency motion to block enforcement of the law while it pursues legal action.
Mr Biden, a Democrat, has described the law as an “unprecedented assault” on women’s rights, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott has defended it, saying: “The most precious freedom is life itself.”
The “Heartbeat Act” bans terminations after the detection of what anti-abortion campaigners call a foetal heartbeat, something medical authorities say is misleading. This effectively bans abortions from as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, at a time when most women will not be aware they are pregnant.
It is enforced by giving any individual – from Texas or elsewhere – the right to sue doctors who perform an abortion past the six-week point. However, it does not allow the women who get the procedure to be sued.
One doctor who admitted breaking the state’s new abortion legislation has already been sued.
Writing for the Washington Post, Dr Alan Braid said he “acted because I had a duty of care to this patient, as I do for all patients, and because she has a fundamental right to receive this care”.
Despite the injunction, some clinics remain hesitant to resume procedures as there is some uncertainty over whether they could be sued retroactively during the ban.
The law itself includes a provision that stipulates clinics and doctors may still be liable for abortions carried out while an emergency injunction is in place, legal experts say.
But whether that provision will be enforceable is unclear, and Judge Pitman said in his ruling that it was “of questionable legality”.
“The threat of being sued retroactively will not be completely gone until [the law] is struck down for good,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.