Washington (AFP) -
A Supreme Court transformed by Donald Trump has delivered the most severe setback to abortion rights in the United States in 50 years by refusing to block a Texas law that bans the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.
Abortion opponents were celebrating on Thursday while Democratic President Joe Biden issued a blistering condemnation of the court and pro-choice groups geared up for further legal challenges to the 'Texas Heartbeat Act.'
That law bans abortion once a heartbeat can be detected, which usually takes place at six weeks -- before many women even know they are pregnant -- and makes no exceptions for rape or incest.
'A tremendous #prolife victory!' tweeted Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, America's second most populous state.
'This lifesaving legislation reflects Texas' pro-life beliefs and our continued commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.'
The anti-abortion group 'Texas Right to Life' called the court decision 'a massive victory for the Pro-Life movement' and a blow to 'the unjust ruling of Roe v. Wade.'
Roe v. Wade is the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legally enshrined a woman's right to an abortion in the United States.
Biden denounced the high court's 5-4 ruling as 'an unprecedented assault on a woman's constitutional rights.'
He took particular aim at a provision of the bill passed by Republican lawmakers in Texas that allows members of the public to sue doctors who perform abortions after six weeks or anyone facilitating the procedure.
'By allowing a law to go into effect that empowers private citizens in Texas to sue health care providers, family members supporting a woman exercising her right to choose after six weeks, or even a friend who drives her to a hospital or clinic, it unleashes unconstitutional chaos and empowers self-anointed enforcers to have devastating impacts,' Biden said.
'Complete strangers will now be empowered to inject themselves in the most private and personal health decisions faced by women,' he said.
Biden said he was launching a 'whole-of-government effort' to 'see what steps the Federal Government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions.'
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said she was 'devastated.'
'Right now, people seeking abortion across Texas are panicking -- they have no idea where or when they will be able to get an abortion, if ever,' Northup said. 'We will keep fighting this ban until abortion access is restored in Texas.'
- 'Set back the hands of time' -
Similar laws banning abortion in the early stages of pregnancy have been passed by the legislatures of a dozen Republican-led conservative states, but all had been stymied in the courts.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and other groups had filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court on Monday asking it to stop the Texas law from taking effect.
But the court, which was revamped under then president Trump with the nomination of three conservative justices, refused to block the legislation late Wednesday.
The five most conservative justices on the court -- including the three nominated by Trump -- said they would allow the Texas law to take effect while the other four justices said it should be put on hold.
Generally conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the three liberal justices and called the law 'not only unusual, but unprecedented.'
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal, said her fellow justices had 'opted to bury their heads in the sand' over a 'flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights.'
Like Biden, Sotomayor criticized the controversial provision that allows private citizens to bring civil suits to enforce the abortion ban, rewarding them with $10,000 for a successful prosecution.
'It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry,' she said.
According to the ACLU, approximately 85 to 90 percent of the women who obtain an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into pregnancy.
Roe v. Wade. guaranteed the right to an abortion in the United States so long as the fetus is not viable outside the womb, which is usually the case until the 22nd to 24th week of pregnancy.
The Supreme Court is also due to hear a case in the coming months involving a Mississippi law that prohibits abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, except in cases of medical emergency or a severe fetal abnormality.