AUSTIN, TEXAS - A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a new Texas law seeking to ban a commonly used abortion method, the latest in a string of court defeats to the Legislature's attempts to make getting an abortion as difficult as possible in America's second most-populous state.
Austin-based U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel extended indefinitely a temporary ban he'd previously issued before the law was set to take effect Sept. 1. That overturns - at least for now - a law that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed in June banning a second-trimester abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. Texas is set to appeal, but federal courts in at least four other states already had blocked similar laws.
Yeakel's ruling followed a trial early this fall where the judge heard arguments from Texas, which defended the law, and from abortion rights groups who argue it unconstitutionally burdens women seeking abortions. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an immediate notice of appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
"A five-day trial in district court allowed us to build a record like no other in exposing the truth about the barbaric practice of dismemberment abortions. We are eager to present that extensive record before the 5th Circuit. No just society should tolerate the tearing of living human beings to pieces,'' Paxton said in a statement.
Federal judges have already ruled against past Texas efforts to change the disposal of fetal remains and deny Medicaid funding to abortion provider Planned Parenthood over videos secretly recorded by an anti-abortion group. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted most of a sweeping, anti-abortion law approved in Texas in 2013 which helped force the closure of more than half of the state's abortion clinics.
Texas for years approved tight abortion restrictions arguing that they would safeguard the lives of pregnant women. After the Supreme Court defeat, the Legislature this session began backing proposals aimed at protecting fetuses, but always with top Republicans' stated goal of reducing the number of abortions performed in their state to as close to zero as possible.
The Texas law Yeakel suspended uses the non-medical term "dismemberment abortion'' to describe a procedure in which forceps and other instruments are used to remove the fetus from the womb. Paxton's office had argued that "prohibiting this inhumane procedure does not impose any significant health risks or burdens on women'' while citing alternative procedures that abortion providers say are less safe and reliable.
However, in a 27-page opinion, Yeakel wrote that the Supreme Court had already weight in on second-trimester abortions twice. In both cases, justices held that "the law imposed an undue burden on a woman seeking a pre-fetal-viability abortion,'' he wrote.
The power to decide to have an abortion "is her right,'' Yeakel wrote, adding that the right over the interest of the fetus before it becomes viable "is self-evident.''
"Here the state's interest must give way to the woman's right,'' Yeakel wrote.
Federal courts previously blocked dilation and evacuation bans in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Texas currently has around 20 abortion clinics, down from 41 in 2012.