The Biden administration is to turn to the US Supreme Court in an attempt to halt a Texas law that has banned most abortions since September.
The move comes as Texas clinics are running out of avenues to stop the Republican-engineered law that bans abortions once cardiac activity is detected, which is usually around six weeks.
It amounts to the nation’s biggest curb on abortion in nearly 50 years.
The latest defeat for clinics came on Thursday night when a federal appeals panel in New Orleans, in a 2-1 decision, allowed the restrictions to remain in place for a third time in the last several weeks alone.
Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said the federal government will now ask the Supreme Court to reverse that decision but did not say how quickly.
The Biden administration was under pressure from abortion rights supporters to go to the Supreme Court even before the announcement. The court already allowed the restrictions to take effect but did so without ruling on the law’s constitutionality.
Since the law took effect on September 1, Texas women have sought out abortion clinics in neighbouring states, some driving hours through the middle of the night. Patients have been as young as 12 years old, and the law makes no exception for cases of rape or incest.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office called the decision on Thursday night by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals a “testament that we are on the right side of the law and life”.
A 1992 decision by the Supreme Court prevented states from banning abortion before viability, the point at which a foetus can survive outside the womb, at around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
But Texas’ version has outmanoeuvred courts so far due to the fact that it offloads enforcement to private citizens.
Anyone who brings a successful lawsuit against an abortion provider for violating the law is entitled to claim at least 10,000 dollars in damages, which the Biden administration says amounts to a bounty.
Only once has a court moved to put the restrictions on hold — and that order only stood for 48 hours.
During that brief window, some Texas clinics rushed to perform abortions on patients past six weeks, but many more appointments were cancelled after the 5th Circuit moved to swiftly reinstate the law last week.
Texas had roughly two dozen abortion clinics before the law took effect, and operators have said some may be forced to close if the restrictions stay in place for much longer.