A federal appeals court panel reinstated Texas' restrictive abortion law late on Friday (Oct 8), temporarily restoring a ban on virtually all procedures that had been blocked by a lower court two days earlier in a case brought by the Biden administration.
The decision, by three judges on the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in a terse two-page ruling granting a stay as it considers an appeal by the state of Texas, had been expected by many abortion providers.
While at least six clinics in Texas had begun conducting abortions beyond the limits of the new law this week, most of the state's roughly two dozen providers had opted not to take that step as the case moved through the courts.
"Tonight the Fifth Circuit has granted an administrative stay in the #SB8 case," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote on Twitter on Friday night. "I will continue to fight to keep #Texas free from federal overreach."
The law, which bans abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, at about six weeks of pregnancy, has altered the landscape for abortions in the nation's second-most-populous state because of its unique structure, which bars state officials from enforcing its provisions, leaving that instead to private citizens.
The Biden administration sued to halt the law, and on Wednesday, a US District Court judge in Austin, Robert L. Pitman, granted the Justice Department's request to halt its enforcement.
In his 113-page opinion, he wrote that because of the law, "women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their own lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution".
In its brief ruling Friday, the appeals court panel, made up of Judges Carl E. Stewart, Catharina Haynes and James C. Ho, called on lawyers for the Biden administration to respond to Texas' appeal by Tuesday.
The abortion law went into effect at the start of September after the Supreme Court, in an emergency ruling, declined to intervene, and it immediately stopped a vast majority of abortions in Texas.
Abortion providers feared the potential liability created by the law, which allows private citizens from anywhere in the United States to bring lawsuits against anyone who performs an abortion or "aids or abets" the procedure.
Women in Texas seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy have since been forced to travel out of state for procedures, creating a surge in demand at clinics in bordering states like Oklahoma.
While the ruling by the three-judge panel is only temporary, the 5th Circuit is among the most conservative in the country and appeared likely to eventually side with Texas. Legal experts said that the decision on Friday evening sent a strong signal that the appeals court would not agree with the decision by Judge Pitman, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
"The Supreme Court needs to step in and stop this madness," Dr Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Centre for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. "It's unconscionable that the Fifth Circuit stayed such a well-reasoned decision that allowed constitutionally protected services to return in Texas."
Two of the judges on the panel joined the appeals court during Republican presidential administrations: Haynes was appointed by President George W. Bush, and Ho by President Donald Trump, while Stewart was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
Ho is also a former solicitor general of Texas, and he worked for Gov. Greg Abbott when Abbott was the state's attorney general.
"This is an answered prayer," said Ms Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokesman for Texas Right to Life, which lobbied for the law. "We are confident Texas will continue to defeat these attacks on our lifesaving efforts."