U.S. President Joe Biden assailed the Supreme Court on Thursday for its 5-4 ruling allowing a Texas law to take effect that bans most abortions in the state, calling it an "unprecedented assault" on women's constitutional right to abortions that has been in place in the United States for nearly 50 years.
Biden said the ruling late Wednesday "unleashes unconstitutional chaos and empowers self-anointed enforcers to have devastating impacts" to block abortions in the southwestern state, the second largest in the country.
Texas is among a dozen mostly Republican-led states that have enacted "heartbeat" abortion bans, which outlaw the procedure once the rhythmic contracting of fetal cardiac tissue can be detected, often at six weeks, and sometimes before a woman realizes she is pregnant.
Courts in the past have blocked such bans, ruling they did not conform to the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision giving women in the U.S. the constitutional right to an abortion without excessive government interference.
The Texas anti-abortion law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by allowing them to sue abortion providers and anyone who "aids or abets" an abortion after six weeks. Those winning such lawsuits would be entitled to at least $10,000.
Biden declared, "Complete strangers will now be empowered to inject themselves in the most private and personal health decisions faced by women. This law is so extreme it does not even allow for exceptions in the case of rape or incest." He contended that the possibility of winning damages "actually incentivizes" people to bring lawsuits.
Abortion providers in Texas asked the Supreme Court to block the law from taking effect, but the five-member majority, in an unsigned order late Wednesday, said the challengers did not meet the high burden necessary for halting the measure, while leaving open the possibility that it could face other legal challenges.
"In reaching this conclusion, we stress that we do not purport to resolve definitively any jurisdictional or substantive claim in the applicants' lawsuit," the order said. "In particular, this order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas's law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts."
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's three liberal justices in opposing the decision. Five conservative justices – Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and three justices appointed to the court by former President Donald Trump, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – comprised the majority to let the Texas law take effect.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion that the law "immediately prohibits care for at least 85% of Texas abortion patients" and is "clearly unconstitutional under existing precedents."
"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 said.
The Texas law went into effect at the start of the day Wednesday, and even before the Supreme Court issued its order, supporters of the measure praised the court for not blocking it.
"Undoubtedly, today is a historic and hopeful day," said Chelsey Youman, an official with the Human Coalition Action group in Texas that worked for passage of the law. "Texas is the first state to successfully protect the most vulnerable among us, preborn children, by outlawing abortion once their heartbeats are detected."
Abortion providers in Texas, including Planned Parenthood and Whole Women's Health, said they would no longer terminate pregnancies more than six weeks after a woman's last menstrual period.
Biden criticized the law in a Wednesday statement, when the Supreme Court did not block it from taking effect, while berating the court itself once its 5-4 ruling was made public.
"For the majority to do this without a hearing, without the benefit of an opinion from a court below, and without due consideration of the issues, insults the rule of law and the rights of all Americans to seek redress from our courts," Biden said.
"Rather than use its supreme authority to ensure justice could be fairly sought, the highest court of our land will allow millions of women in Texas in need of critical reproductive care to suffer while courts sift through procedural complexities," he said.
Biden noted he was directing his Gender Policy Council and White House counsel Dana Remus "to launch a whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision," to see what steps the federal government can take to protect the availability of abortions in Texas.
Another Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said, "The Supreme Court's cowardly, dark-of-night decision to uphold a flagrantly unconstitutional assault on women's rights and health is staggering. That this radically partisan court chose to do so without a full briefing, oral arguments or providing a full, signed opinion is shameful."
Pelosi said the House of Representatives would hold a vote on a measure to enshrine abortion rights into U.S. law.
The right to an abortion is one of the most contested issues in American political life.
Although national polls show that most Americans support retaining the nearly five-decades-old Roe ruling, conservative-dominated state legislatures with Republican majorities have approved a range of laws to limit the number of abortions, with some anti-abortion lawmakers actively petitioning the high court to ban the procedure outright.
The Supreme Court, with its 6-to-3 conservative majority, has agreed to hear arguments in its term starting in October about a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, significantly before fetal viability.