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A judge ordered Texas to suspend its highly restrictive abortion law. What happens now?

Women protested against the six-week abortion ban at the Capitol in Austin, Texas on Sept 1.Jay Janner/Associated Press

A federal judge in Texas issued an order temporarily blocking enforcement of the nation’s most restrictive abortion law on Wednesday night, labeling the bar on the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy an “offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

The ruling by US District Judge Robert Pitman granted a request brought forward by the Biden administration. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in early September challenging the state law, arguing that the ban on almost all abortions in the nation’s second-most populous state was enacted “in open defiance of the constitution.” The department then sought a temporary restraining order prohibiting it from being imposed a week later.

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The Texas law is unique because it incentivizes members of the public who disagree with abortions to take civil action. Citizens can sue not only providers but anyone they suspect of “aiding and abetting” abortions, such as the person who drove a patient to a clinic.

Soon after Pitman halted the near-total ban on abortion, the state of Texas moved to file a notice of appeal.

So what might come next? Here’s what we know.

What does the order do?

It is currently unclear how the preliminary injunction being granted will affect access to abortions in the state — or if the order will have any effect. The ruling to grant the hold does not determine whether the Texas law is constitutional or not, and abortion providers told the Associated Press they still fear legal action without a more permanent decision.

Pitman’s order directs the state to publish the injunction on “all of its public-facing court websites with a visible, easy-to-understand instruction to the public” that lawsuits currently allowed by the restrictive abortion law “will not be accepted by Texas courts.” The judge also directed Texas officials to inform “all state court judges and state court clerks” of the federal court’s order.

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How might the ruling affect similar legislation being considered elsewhere?

Pitman acknowledged the concern of Texas officials that the federal government filing a lawsuit against the state over this case would “increase the number of suits brought by the United States against states,” but he called this particular case “exceptional” because of the structure of the law and its effect on the constitutional rights of individuals.

The judge said his preliminary injunction discourages states from enacting similar legislation, especially those aimed at furthering a “political agenda.”

“If legislators know they cannot accomplish political agendas that curtail or eliminate constitutional rights and intentionally remove the legal remedy to challenge it, then other states are less likely to engage in copycat legislation,” Pitman wrote.

What has been the reaction in Texas to the order?

Abortion facilities throughout the state have halted the procedure out of fear of being sued by private citizens. And advocates have said that women and girls have had to make strenuous trips across state lines in order to have their pregnancies terminated.

After the order was announced, the ACLU of Texas said in a statement that while the “ruling paves the way for providers to resume care,” many questions about how the appeal process will play out remain unanswered, especially given “the aggressive nature of Texas’ litigation tactics.”

Planned Parenthood called the order “long overdue” but did not clarify whether its providers in Texas would resume abortion services.

“While this fight is far from over, we are hopeful that the court’s order blocking S.B. 8 will allow Texas abortion providers to resume services as soon as possible,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement.

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Meanwhile, both the Center for Reproductive Rights and Whole Women’s Health said they were hoping to resume full abortion services as soon as possible.

“This is AMAZING. It’s the justice we have been seeking for weeks,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, said in a statement.

John Seago, the legislative director of the Texas Right to Life, told the Washington Post that Pitman’s order demonstrated “extreme prejudice” and that “he expects the ruling will be reversed on appeal.”

What happens next in the courts?

Texas officials are highly likely to seek an emergency stay of the order in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, “perhaps the nation’s most conservative appellate court,” according to the Texas Tribune. That raises the specter of legal action against providers who perform abortions in the meantime, since lawsuits can still be brought several years after an abortion was performed.

Although states have passed laws similar to the one in Texas in the past — where abortions are banned after “a physician has detected cardiac activity” —federal judges have blocked them from taking effect, citing “the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees the right to abortion before viability,” the Washington Post reported. But the Texas law has already inspired numerous other states to consider pushing forward similar legislation.

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At the end of last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case being brought forward by the state of Mississippi, which is attempting to get the landmark Roe decision overturned. The case involves the state’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks. The court will listen to arguments on Dec. 1 over the divisive issue.


Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.