A federal judge has temporarily blocked a Texas law that would restrict the most common type of second-trimester abortion.
In a 17-page ruling on Thursday, Judge Lee Yeakel of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas found that opponents of the law had shown “a substantial likelihood of success on the merits,” and granted a two-week restraining order while the case proceeds. The restriction had been scheduled to take effect on Friday.
The law — part of Senate Bill 8, passed this spring — would require doctors to stop the fetus’s heart before performing a dilation-and-evacuation abortion, in which the cervix is dilated and the fetus is removed in pieces. This would be done either by injecting chemicals or by cutting the umbilical cord. There would be an exception for life-threatening emergencies.
Proponents of the new law say this would ensure the “humane termination” of the fetus. Opponents say it would require women seeking abortions to undergo medically unnecessary and untested procedures — and note that using the chemicals in question would violate another Texas law, which prohibits the off-label use of drugs to induce abortions.
“The state’s interest notwithstanding, this court finds no authority for holding that government-mandated medically unnecessary, untested, or a more invasive procedure, or a more complicated and risky procedure with no proven medical benefits over the safe and commonly used banned procedure, is a permissible means of regulating previability abortions,” Judge Yeakel wrote.
The next step is a hearing on Sept. 14 on whether to grant a preliminary injunction, which could block the law from taking effect until the case is resolved. From there, the case could proceed to a full trial before the District Court or move on to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Ultimately, it could end up before the United States Supreme Court, said Janet Crepps, a senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing Texas abortion providers alongside lawyers from Planned Parenthood.
“We’re grateful that today’s decision will protect women’s access to one of the safest and most common methods of abortion in the second trimester,” Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, chief medical officer at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.
The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, criticized the ruling. Marc Rylander, a spokesman for Mr. Paxton’s office, said in a statement that dilation-and-evacuation abortions were “gruesome and inhumane, which makes it troubling that a District Court would block Texas’ lawful authority to protect the life of unborn children from such a barbaric practice.”
The statement emphasized that the law would not ban second-trimester abortions, saying it simply “ensures more humane treatment of the unborn child.”
Supporters of the law cited studies that they said demonstrated the safety of the additional procedures the law would require. However, medical officials generally oppose them. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that standard dilation-and-evacuation abortions are “evidence-based and medically preferred” in the second trimester because they cause “the fewest complications for women compared to alternative procedures.”
“We don’t really know what is the next best alternative because we haven’t had to use it as a medical community for decades,” said Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director of the Texas Whole Woman’s Health clinics, the main plaintiffs in the case. “There isn’t any good evidence, if any evidence, to support any of the alternatives’ being viable options.”
Before the ruling came down, Dr. Kumar said, he felt panicky thinking about having to tell patients “that this is how I normally would do the procedure if I were in any other state, but because of the new state law, I now have to provide you with care that is substandard.”
Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, which supports the Texas law, said in a statement that the state “should have the right to protect innocent unborn babies from dismemberment abortions, in which a doctor kills a child by tearing him or her into pieces.” The fact that courts have consistently ruled against bans on dilation-and-evacuation abortions, he argued, “shows how extremely out of touch the Supreme Court precedent is with modern science, which clearly tells us that an unborn child’’ is a living human being.
In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Daniel Grossman, a professor of obstetrics at the University of California, San Francisco, said that second-trimester abortions had increased since Texas imposed a separate set of restrictions on abortion clinics in 2013. (The Supreme Court struck those down last year.) There was a 27 percent increase in second-trimester abortions from 2013 to 2014, according to a study by Dr. Grossman and others, which might reflect women’s having trouble obtaining abortions in a timely manner. The increase in later-term abortions occurred even as the overall number of abortions in Texas declined.
“It’s particularly ironic that the state would then be imposing a ban on the safest and most commonly used procedure in the second trimester,” Dr. Grossman said, “when there’s some indication that previous restrictions they’ve imposed are pushing women to need this procedure more.”