Biden condemns US supreme court’s ‘unprecedented assault’ on abortion rights

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Joe Biden condemned the US supreme court on Thursday, saying it had delivered “an unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional right” in a rebuke of its decision not to consider a Texas law that effectively bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Related: Biden launches ‘whole-of-government’ effort to protect Texas abortion rights after ruling – live

The law, one of the most restrictive abortions bans in the US in five decades, had been in effect for nearly 24 hours when the court delivered a 5-4 decision late on Wednesday that denied an emergency appeal from abortion providers.

All three justices appointed by Donald Trump, along with two of the court’s conservative members, voted to deny the appeal.

In a statement, Biden pledged his administration would act to “ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions” as protected by the landmark Roe v Wade ruling in 1973.

He said the new legislation empowered private citizens in Texas to sue healthcare providers, family members supporting a woman exercising her right to choose after six weeks, or “even a friend who drivers her to a hospital or clinic”.

“It unleashes unconstitutional chaos and empowers self-anointed enforcers to have devastating impact,” Biden said.

The president said he would direct the Office of the White House Counsel to “launch a whole-of-government effort to respond to the decision”, including directing the federal justice and health departments to see “what legal tools we have to insulate women and providers from the impact of Texas’s bizarre scheme”.

The decision from the majority appeared to shock even fellow supreme court justices. Sonia Sotomayor, who voted against the majority, called the decision “a breathtaking act of defiance – of the constitution, of this court’s precedent and of rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas” in her dissenting opinion.

When given the chance to act on a “flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny,” Sotomayor wrote, “a majority of the justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

Signed in May by the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, the law prohibits abortions once embryonic cardiac activity is detected by medical professionals, usually around six weeks of pregnancy. Reproductive health experts estimate that the ban will prevent 85% of pregnant women, particularly low-income women, from getting an abortion in the state, which has a population of 29 million.

The court’s denial of the appeal calls into question the future of Roe v Wade, which has affirmed a person’s right to an abortion until “viability” of a fetus, usually in the third trimester of pregnancy. When its next term starts in October, the court is expected to decide on a law in Mississippi that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The laws from Texas and Mississippi are just two of dozens of laws that have been passed in recent years that severely restrict access to abortion in conservative states.

States were emboldened to create anti-abortion legislation with the presidency of Donald Trump and his appointment of three conservative justices – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – who have indicated they do not believe the constitution protects the right to an abortion.

The Texas law was specifically crafted to evade the judicial scrutiny other anti-abortion laws have received because of Roe v Wade protections. Instead of having the government outright restrict abortion, it relies on private citizens to carry out the ban. The law allows private citizens to sue not only abortion providers but also anyone who “aids or abets” the procedure – a wide-ranging net meant to deter anyone from even assisting a women from getting an abortion with the threat of legal action. The law does not make any exception for cases of rape or incest.

Some Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have said that the supreme court’s decision emphasizes the need to abolish the filibuster, which allows a minority of 41 US senators to block a vote on most legislation. The debate over the filibuster has divided Democrats since the start of the year, when the party declared a majority in Congress.

“Democrats can either abolish the filibuster and expand the court, or do nothing as million of people’s bodies, rights and lives are sacrificed for far-right minority rule,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “This shouldn’t be a difficult decision.”

The night before the law went into effect, some abortion providers reported carrying out abortions until midnight, with their waiting rooms full of patients trying to get abortions while the procedure was still legal.

One clinic in Fort Worth carried out 67 abortions in 17 hours, with doctors working from 7am into the late evening.

The next day, the parking lot of the clinic was empty, Marva Sadler, senior director of clinical services at Whole Women’s Health, told a local TV news station. Sadler said some women had to be turned away because ultrasounds detected cardiac activity and made them ineligible for the procedure.

Talking to women who the clinic had to turn away, “most of them this morning told us it’s not about the finances of getting to another state, it’s the day off of work, it’s finding someone to take care of their children and their families,” Sadler said. “And it’s impossible.”

While the supreme court justices who denied the appeal said that their decision “is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law”, it will probably encourage other states to pass similar laws designed to skirt judicial scrutiny.

“[Texas’s law] promises an alternative to that typical path that pro-life laws go down,” John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, an organization that helped craft the legislation, told Time. “This is a valid public policy tool and we’re excited to see how it works.”

At a press briefing on Thursday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Biden is “of course worried that other states … will copycat these steps that happened in Texas” and said the White House was acting “as quickly as possible to see what our options are”.