tribune abortion protesters

Protesters of Senate Bill 8 stood at the front steps of the Texas Capitol during an October march Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Friday temporarily allowed Texas’ near-total abortion ban — the strictest in the nation — to again be enforced after freezing a federal judge’s temporary block of the law. The state appealed the order just two days after it was issued.

A panel of 5th Circuit justices restored enforcement of the law hours after Texas asked the court to step into a lawsuit that the U.S. Justice Department filed against the state. Enforcement of the law will be allowed to continue until at least Tuesday, when a response from the Justice Department is due. After the court considers arguments from both sides, the court can decide whether to continue allowing enforcement of the law or allow a lower court to once again temporarily block it.

The court would not be determining the overall case’s outcome at this point — but it would decide whether the law could continue to stand while court proceedings unfold.

In their request for an emergency stay, Texas attorneys argued that U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman’s order to temporarily block enforcement of the state’s abortion restrictions “violates the separation of powers at every turn.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the appellate court's decision.

"Great news tonight, The Fifth Circuit has granted an administrative stay on #SB8," Paxton tweeted. "I will fight federal overreach at every turn."

Senate Bill 8 bans abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant. The law has mostly flouted the constitutional right to have an abortion before fetal viability established by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequent rulings.

That’s because it leaves enforcement of the new restrictions not to state officials but instead to private citizens filing lawsuits through the civil court system against people who perform or assist someone in getting an abortion. The law lays out a penalty of at least $10,000 for people or groups that are successfully sued.

The abortion law allows for retroactive enforcement — meaning those who helped someone get an abortion while the law was blocked for two days can now be sued.

A day after Pitman's order, at least one major provider in the state — Whole Woman’s Health — had quickly begun performing abortions that Texas lawmakers sought to outlaw. It appears the clinics and doctors who performed abortions outlawed by the statute would now be vulnerable to lawsuits after Friday's order.

"We do understand that it does open us up to some risk. We have to wait and see," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health. "We have a lot of lawyers on speed dial these days."

Miller said her organization and physicians in her clinics are on edge.

"But not for a second do we question that it was the right thing to do," she said. "People need our help, and they shouldn't be put through this."

The organization will comply with the law once again, she said. Already several appointments had been made for Monday, so clinics will have to cancel them.

"Unfortunately, there's going to be a lot of phone calls we have to make," she said.

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