The US Justice Department has filed a lawsuit to block a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, arguing that the state is infringing on the constitutional rights set by legal precedents.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the lawsuit on Thursday, saying that the Texas legislation, which went into effect last week, is “clearly unconstitutional”.
The Texas law, known as SB8, incentivises private citizens to sue anyone who provides or assists in an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
The enforcement mechanism is an “obvious” effort to evade judicial challenges under the federal right to privacy, which allows abortions up to 22 weeks of pregnancy, Garland said.
He said it was an “unprecedented scheme” designed to prevent women from exercising their constitutional rights.
“This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans – whatever their politics or party – should fear,” Garland said. “If it prevails, it may become a model for action in other areas, by other states and with respect to other constitutional rights and judicial precedents.”
Last week, the US Supreme Court, the top judicial authority in the country, refused to block SB8 from going into effect despite acknowledging “serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue”.
The ruling said it is unclear who is enforcing it, stressing that “federal courts enjoy the power to enjoin individuals tasked with enforcing laws, not the laws themselves”.
The decision passed in a 5-4 vote with all three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump siding with the majority.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the ruling by her colleagues “stunning”.
“Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand,” she wrote.
On Tuesday, Garland highlighted a range of legal issues that his office’s lawsuit is claiming against SB8, including interfering with US agencies “carrying out their responsibilities under federal laws relating to abortion services”.
He said the Texas legislation violates the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, which states that federal law trumps state laws, and the 14th Amendment, which ensures equal protection under the Constitution.
“The Department of Justice has a duty to defend the Constitution of the United States and to uphold the rule of law,” Garland said. “Today we fulfil that duty by filing the lawsuit I have just described.”
The legal complaint was filed in the US District Court in the Western District of Texas.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s press secretary Renae Eze said the state is “confident” that the courts will uphold what she called the “right to life”.
“The most precious freedom is life itself. Texas passed a law that ensures that the life of every child with a heartbeat will be spared from the ravages of abortion,” Eze told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.
“Unfortunately, President Biden and his Administration are more interested in changing the national narrative from their disastrous Afghanistan evacuation and reckless open border policies instead of protecting the innocent unborn.”
Earlier this week, the Justice Department promised to enforce existing laws to protect abortion clinics in Texas.
“We will continue to protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services pursuant to our criminal and civil enforcement of the FACE Act,” Garland said in a statement on Monday, citing a law that prohibits attacks on facilities that offer reproductive health services.
Critics of the law have noted that it does not make exemptions for rape or incest, and that many women are not aware of pregnancy in the first six weeks.
Julia Kaye, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Al Jazeera last week that “devastation and chaos” prevailed in the state after the law came into effect.
“There are thousands of pregnant Texans who are sitting at their kitchen tables trying to crunch the numbers and figure out how they can possibly travel hundreds of miles out of state, in order to get time-sensitive medical care,” Kaye said.