The U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling late Wednesday night allowing Texas’ heartbeat law to take effect, potentially signaling the court’s willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
The Texas law prohibits abortions once a heartbeat is detectable, usually around six weeks gestation.
Abortion rights groups had asked the court to take emergency action to block the law. While the court’s majority declined to do so, it did not rule on the merits of the case.
“The applicants now before us have raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue,” read the unsigned order from Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. “[T]his 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 sided with the court’s three liberal members in opposing the decision to let the Texas law stand. All four wrote dissenting opinions.
At least 12 other states have passed similar laws, but courts have blocked all of them from taking effect. In contrast to legislation in other states, the Texas law permits private citizens to sue abortion providers and those who facilitate illegal abortions.
In his dissent, Roberts took issue with the enforcement mechanisms.
“The statutory scheme before the Court is not only unusual, but unprecedented,” Roberts wrote. “The legislature has…essentially delegated enforcement of that prohibition to the populace at large. The desired consequence appears to be to insulate the State from responsibility for implementing and enforcing the regulatory regime.”
Texas Republicans, who passed the law earlier this year, celebrated the decision.
“No freedom is more precious than life itself,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted Wednesday. “Starting today, every unborn child with a heartbeat will be protected from the ravages of abortion.”
Abortion rights advocates began planning protests and spoke in sweeping terms about the law’s consequences for women. In a CNN interview Alexis McGill Johnson, CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called Wednesday “an incredibly dark day” and the law’s provisions “emblematic of vigilante justice.”
The Supreme Court, which is currently on recess, is scheduled to take up a challenge to Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban in its fall term.