With prayers and signs, abortion demonstrators converge on U.S. Supreme Court

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court began heard arguments in a major abortion dispute out of Texas, a group of demonstrators who oppose abortion joined together outside the stately white marble neoclassical building to pray for the nine justices, listing each one by name.

Hundreds of people in support and opposition to a restrictive Texas abortion law gathered on Monday outside the courthouse on a mild autumn day in the U.S. capital. The justices heard arguments in challenges by President Joe Biden’s administration and abortion providers to the measure, which imposes a near-total abortion ban – prohibiting it after six weeks of pregnancy – and empowers private citizens enforce it.

Abortion opponents held signs saying, “Let their hearts beat,” and played Christian music. Abortion rights supporters held signs saying “Bans off our bodies” and “Abortion is essential.”

Some of the law’s supporters cast the debate in religious terms.

The Reverend Patrick Mahoney, chief strategy officer for the anti-abortion group Stanton Public Policy Center, said, “Our strength is local. You can go to every community in the country right now and find grandmas in church basements knitting baby booties or doing bake sales. There’s this collective energy bubbling in our movement right now.”

Regarding the law’s private-enforcement mechanism, Mahoney said, “Is that the way I would have gone? Probably not. But it’s saving innocent lives. Overall I think it’s innovative and creative.”

The law puts enforcement in the hands of private citizens, empowering them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in successful lawsuits.

Julia Deluce, a coordinator with the group Students for Life, said she was advocating for the rights of “pre-born children,” adding, “They are human. They are part of our species. And they deserve our protection.”

Abortion rights demonstrators voiced alarm over the Texas law, which bans abortion at a point in time when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant. Abortion was legalized nationwide in the Supreme Court’s Roe. v. Wade decision. A series of restrictive Republican-backed abortion laws have been passed by states in recent years.

Washington resident Martha Dickey said she has been advocating for abortion rights since the 1970s.

“I found out what happened in Texas and I was really upset,” Dickey said. “… It stops the chance for a woman to be free to decide what happens to her own body.”

Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of the Whole Women’s Health Clinic abortion provider that challenged the Texas law, said, “A ban like this doesn’t change the fact that people need abortions. It just changes the kind of abortions they can have.” She said she hopes the justices understand the impact of their decisions “on real people’s lives.”

(Writing by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

Analysis-Judge’s ruling on Texas abortion ban a warning to copycats, for now

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge’s decision blocking Texas’ near-total abortion ban is a warning to other states considering similar measures, though it too could be overturned by a higher court in the coming weeks.

Texas’ law banning the procedure from six weeks, a point when many women may not even be aware they are pregnant, took effect last month after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a to halt it from taking effect, in a late-night decision that took no stance on the law’s constitutionality.

Rather, the Supreme Court allowed it to stand due to an unusual mechanism that leaves it up to private citizens to enforce the ban through civil lawsuits against anyone who “aids or abets” a woman obtaining an abortion – and provides a $10,000 bounty for those who do.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin late Wednesday blasted the law as a “flagrant violation” of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion.

Pitman, who was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, said he was particularly troubled by how the law named S.B. 8 outsources enforcement to private citizens, calling this an “unprecedented and aggressive scheme” to limit legal challenges.

That, legal experts said, was a clear warning to at least 12 other states contemplating similar action, including Florida, South Carolina and South Dakota, that there is now a route for the U.S. Department of Justice to challenge the structure of the ban.

“We are still at the early stages, and a lot depends on the court and judge assigned to the case,” said David Noll, a professor at Rutgers Law School. “But this is a first cut at the what the DOJ can do in response to this sort of law.”

Since the law went into effect, the four Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinics across Texas have seen patient visits plummet, some staff quit, and recruitment efforts falter. After the decision it said it was making plans to resume abortions up to 18 weeks “as soon as possible.”

DESIGNED TO AVOID CHALLENGE

By deputizing enforcement to private citizens, the law deliberately tried to insulate Texas from legal challenges filed in the federal court system, Pitman said.

“Rather than subjecting its law to judicial review under the Constitution, the State deliberately circumvented the traditional process,” the judge wrote. “It drafted the law with the intent to preclude review by federal courts that have the obligation to safeguard the very rights the statute likely violates.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican defending the law in court, said in a statement that his office disagreed with Pitman’s decision and was appealing to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The sanctity of human life is, and will always be, a top priority for me,” Paxton said.

At a recent court hearing, Paxton’s office argued the law was not designed to evade judicial review, and that offering incentives for private lawsuits is neither unusual nor unlawful.

For now, Pitman’s ruling is “a warning” to anti-abortion lawmakers who want to mimic the Texas approach to enforcing an abortion ban, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Florida Republicans have already introduced a copycat bill with this mechanism, and lawmakers in Georgia, Arizona and West Virginia have said they want to follow Texas’ private enforcement approach.

But Levinson cautioned that Pitman’s ruling could be reversed, either by the Fifth Circuit or eventually the Supreme Court.

“I hope I’m wrong but I just don’t see a long lifespan for Judge Pitman’s ruling,” said Levinson, who called the Fifth Circuit the most conservative of the intermediate federal appeals courts one step below the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, on Dec. 1 hears arguments in a separate case involving a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has asked the high court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

John Seago, the legislative director for anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, said the organization believes Judge Pitman will be reversed on appeal.

“We believe Senate Bill 8 is going to be upheld,” Seago said, adding that a “typical route” for this sort of case is a federal judge in Western Texas ruling in favor of liberal advocates but then getting reversed on appeal.

Florida State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, said Republican lawmakers in her state should take heed from Pitman’s ruling and drop their plans for copying S.B. 8’s approach to enforcement.

“This sends a really strong message to those politicians that this sort of scheme is unlawful,” she said.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O’Brien)

Back in black: U.S. Supreme Court opens its momentous new term

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Supreme Court justices took a step back toward normalcy on Monday on the first day of their new nine-month term as they conducted oral arguments in person for the first time in 19 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, holding a muted and polite session in a socially distanced courtroom.

The court’s term includes major cases in the coming months on abortion and gun rights.

Eight justices appeared in person, wearing their traditional black robes as they entered the ornate and sparsely populated courtroom and sat behind the mahogany bench. One justice, Brett Kavanaugh, participated remotely after testing positive for the coronavirus last week, with his questions audible via speakers in the courtroom. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wore a black face mask, while the court’s other members present went maskless.

Monday also marked the first time that the court’s junior-most member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, participated in an in-person argument. As is customary for a new justice, Barrett, appointed by former President Donald Trump last year to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sat on the far right of the bench and was last to ask questions.

The justices were joined by lawyers, court staff and journalists – all masked, except for the lawyers arguing the cases, and spread out among the rows of seats – in their spacious column-lined courtroom. No members of the public were present.

In the first of two arguments heard on Monday, the justices expressed skepticism about Mississippi’s claim that Tennessee is effectively stealing its water from an underground aquifer that runs beneath both states.

The justices appeared to have learned some lessons from their pandemic-prompted experiment of holding oral arguments via teleconference. They seemed to use some elements of that more structured approach, with justices careful to wait their turn before speaking, in contrast with the previous rough-and-tumble format in which justices competed with each other to get a word in.

At times, Chief Justice John Roberts, seated in the center of the bench, asked each justice in turn if they wanted to pose a question. Roberts also conferred with the justices sitting on either side of him: Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.

Thomas, who famously almost never spoke during in-person oral arguments in the past, had regularly participated during teleconference arguments – and quickly asked the first question of the new term, indicating he will continue to be a vocal presence.

Monday’s second argument was a Georgia criminal case involving a man convicted of being a felon possessing a firearm.

The court building has been closed to the public since March 2020 due to the pandemic.

Another change embraced by the tradition-bound court is live audio of oral arguments, a practice it had rejected until the pandemic spurred its use in May 2020. That practice continued on Monday.

Before hearing arguments, the court acted on some appeals.

It cleared the way for New York to collect a $200 million surcharge imposed on opioid manufacturers and distributors, ended Oracle Corp’s challenge to how the Pentagon awarded cloud computing contract and declined to hear a New Jersey case involving a legal defense that often protects police officers from accusations of excessive force.

ABORTION AND GUN CASES

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has come under close scrutiny after on Sept. 1 allowing a Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy to go into effect.

Among the cases the justices are due to hear during their new term is a challenge set to be argued in December to abortion rights involving Mississippi’s bid to revive a Republican-backed state law banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has asked the justices to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

A few dozen people attended an anti-abortion rally outside the court. Father Frank Pavone, national director of a group called Priests for Life, led a prayer calling for the end of abortion He mentioned Trump’s three conservative Supreme Court appointees.

“All three, we are confident, will rule the right way,” Pavone said.

The justices are scheduled in November to hear a challenge backed by the National Rifle Association to New York state’s restrictions on people carrying concealed handguns in public in a case that could further undermine firearms control efforts nationally.

All nine justices, three of whom are over age 70, have been vaccinated against COVID-19, which has proven to be particularly dangerous among the elderly.

They are being tested regularly, as well as others who attend the oral arguments. Although Kavanaugh tested positive for the coronavirus last week, the court said he had no COVID-19 symptoms. Written guidance for lawyers requires them to be tested for the coronavirus but there is no vaccine requirement.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

U.S. House Democrats advance abortion rights bill, Senate passage unlikely

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives advanced a bill on Tuesday that would protect the right to abortion and annul some new restrictions passed by Republican-controlled state governments.

If the “Women’s Health Protection Act” passes the Democratic-controlled House, it is unlikely to succeed in the 100-member Senate, where Republicans also are a minority but hold enough votes to prevent it from reaching the 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation.

Democrats sent the bill to the full House after a law took effect in Texas early this month that almost completely bans abortion in the state.

The right to abortion was established in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but abortion-rights advocates fear it could be overturned when the court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, hears Mississippi’s bid to overturn that decision.

“Action is both urgent and necessary,” said Representative Norma Torres during a hearing of the House Rules Committee, which voted 9-4 along party lines to advance the legislation to the full House.

Republicans attacked the legislation, arguing that it would expand access to abortions beyond the intent of Roe v. Wade.

“It’s the fiercest assault on the unborn since Roe was decided,” said Representative Tom Cole, the senior House Rules panel Republican. He added that the Democrats’ bill “would pre-empt any state law that seeks to protect (unborn) life.”

While a majority of Americans for many years have supported at least some forms of abortion, it is one of the most divisive issues in American society.

A mid-June Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 52% of adults said abortion should be legal in “most” or “all” cases, while 36% said it should be illegal.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Analysis: U.S. Supreme Court’s rightward lurch put Roe v. Wade on the brink

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – During a 2016 presidential debate, then-candidate Donald Trump made a statement that seemed brash at the time: If he were elected and got the chance to nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion would be overturned.

By this time next year, with the court having tilted further to the right thanks to Trump’s three appointments to the nation’s highest court, his prediction could come true.

The court’s decision on Wednesday night to allow Texas’ six-week abortion ban to go into effect in apparent contravention of the 1973 Roe decision suggests the court is closer than ever to overturning a ruling U.S. conservatives have long reviled.

“We don’t know how quickly or openly the court will reverse Roe, but this decision suggests that it’s only a matter of time,” said Mary Ziegler, an expert on abortion history at Florida State University College of Law.

Two generations of American women have grown up with access to abortion, although its use has declined over the past decade.

But while Roe handed liberals a victory on a crucial issue of the times, it also helped to power the religious right into a galvanizing force as it worked to get the decision overturned.

Since Congress never acted to formalize abortion rights – which shows what a hot button issue it is politically – the same court that once legalized abortion has the power to allow states to ban it.

In the coming months, the court will weigh whether to throw Roe out altogether as the justices consider whether to uphold a 15-week abortion ban in the state of Mississippi.

Unlike the Texas dispute, in which the justices did not directly address whether Roe should be reversed, they will in the Mississippi case.

A ruling is due by the end of June 2022, just months before an election that will determine whether the Democrats retain their narrow majority in both houses of Congress.

The last time the Supreme Court was this close to overturning Roe, in 1992, opponents were bitterly disappointed when the court’s moderates banded together and upheld abortion rights. Although the Supreme Court had a conservative majority, it was not deemed conservative enough.

MCCONNELL’S ROLE

The reason why the outcome could be different now is in part thanks to the decades-long efforts of conservative legal activists to re-shape the court, which bore fruit during Trump’s presidency. Trump was aided by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as the death of liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which gave him a third vacancy to fill just before he lost the November 2020 election.

All three Trump nominees were pre-vetted by conservative lawyers associated with the Federalist Society legal group. All three — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were in the majority as the court allowed the Texas abortion law to go into effect.

The court now has a rock-solid 6-3 conservative majority, which means that even if one peels away – as Chief Justice John Roberts did on Wednesday and in another abortion case in 2020 – the conservative bloc still retains the upper hand.

Conservative Republican McConnell played a key role in the Senate, which has the job of confirming nominees to the bench.

Democrats’ hopes were raised early in 2016, when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died, that what had been a 5-4 conservative majority on the high court could switch to a 5-4 liberal majority for the first time in decades. McConnell crushed those dreams, refusing to move forward with then-Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

As a result, when Trump came into office in early 2017 he was able to immediately nominate Gorsuch, who was duly confirmed by McConnell’s Republican-led Senate.

Trump and McConnell then pushed through the nomination of Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018 despite allegations of sexual misconduct against the nominee, which he denied. Kennedy was a conservative but had voted to uphold abortion rights in key cases, including in 1992.

Finally, in September 2020, Ginsburg died. In an unprecedented move, Trump and McConnell installed Barrett just days before Election Day on Nov. 7, leading to widespread accusations of hypocrisy but cementing the conservative majority.

Despite the favorable winds, some anti-abortion advocates are playing down the importance of the Supreme Court’s Texas ruling, and say the fate of Roe v Wade is still up in the air.

“I’ve long thought the court should overturn Roe because it is not based on what the Constitution actually says,” said John Bursch, a lawyer at conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, before adding: “This order doesn’t give a signal either way about what the majority will do in the Mississippi case.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Scott Malone and Sonya Hepinstall)

Biden vows to protect Roe v. Wade after Texas abortion law takes effect

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden condemned the Texas law that went into effect on Wednesday which prohibits the vast majority of abortions in the state, and pledged his administration would fight to protect the constitutional right to abortion as laid out in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

“The Texas law will significantly impair women’s access to the health care they need, particularly for communities of color and individuals with low incomes,” Biden said in a statement. “And, outrageously, it deputizes private citizens to bring lawsuits against anyone who they believe has helped another person get an abortion.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Federal appeals court blocks Missouri ban on abortions after 8 weeks

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – A panel of federal appeals court judges blocked a Missouri law on Wednesday that banned abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy, saying the provisions of the law violated the constitutional right of women to end their pregnancies.

The law is among more than a dozen gestational age abortion bans that have been passed in recent years by Republican-led legislatures and challenged for their violation of the United States Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which said women have a right to abortion before the fetus is viable, between 24 and 28 weeks.

U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs in Kansas City had temporarily halted the Missouri law just days before it was due to go into effect in August 2019, saying it would negatively impact the rights of Missouri women. The decision on Wednesday by a three-judge panel in the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Sachs’ ruling.

“Bans on pre-viability abortions are categorically unconstitutional,” Judge Jane Kelly wrote in the opinion.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, with opponents declaring it immoral on religious grounds and abortion rights advocates saying the option is necessary to ensure women’s bodily autonomy.

Women’s health provider Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties union filed the lawsuit challenging the 2019 ban, which only made exceptions for abortions after eight weeks in cases where there are medical emergencies. The law also banned women from seeking abortions because the fetus had Down’s Syndrome.

“Today’s decision is a critical victory for Missourians,” said Yamelsie Rodríguez, president of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, in a statement.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in a statement that he was “disappointed” in the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

“We plan to seek review in the Supreme Court,” he said. “I have never and will never stop fighting to ensure that all life is protected.”

Last month, the Supreme Court signaled its willingness to weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade when it agreed to review a Mississippi law that would ban abortions before the fetus is able to live outside the womb. A decision in that case is expected in 2022.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

U.S. Supreme Court takes up major challenge to abortion rights

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider gutting the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, taking up Mississippi’s bid to revive a Republican-backed state law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

By hearing the case in their next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2022, the justices will look at whether to overturn a central part of the landmark ruling, a longstanding goal of religious conservatives.

The ruling by the conservative-majority court, expected next year, could allow states to ban abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb, upending decades of legal precedent. Lower courts ruled against Mississippi’s law.

In the Roe v. Wade decision, subsequently reaffirmed in 1992, the court said that states could not ban abortion before the viability of the fetus outside the womb, which is generally viewed by doctors as between 24 and 28 weeks. The Mississippi law would ban abortion much earlier than that. Other states have backed laws that would ban the procedure even earlier.

“Alarm bells are ringing loudly about the threat to reproductive rights. The Supreme Court just agreed to review an abortion ban that unquestionably violates nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and is a test case to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is among those challenging the law.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, said she is committed to defending the law’s constitutionality.

“The Mississippi legislature enacted this law consistent with the will of its constituents to promote women’s health and preserve the dignity and sanctity of life. I remain committed to advocating for women and defending Mississippi’s legal right to protect the unborn,” Fitch said.

The Roe v. Wade ruling recognized that a constitutional right to personal privacy protects a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion. The court in its 1992 decision, coming in the case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, reaffirmed the ruling and prohibited laws that place an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Abortion opponents are hopeful the Supreme Court will narrow or overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority following the addition last year of former President Donald Trump’s third appointee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

LOUISIANA RULING

The Supreme Court in a 5-4 June 2020 ruling struck down a Louisiana law that imposed restrictions on doctors who perform abortions. The late liberal Justice Ruth Bader was still on the court at the time, and conservative Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the court’s liberal wing in the ruling. Roberts, however, made it clear that he voted that way because he felt bound by the court’s 2016 ruling striking down a similar Texas law.

The 2018 Mississippi law, like others resembling it passed by Republican-led states, was enacted with full knowledge that was a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

After the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, sued to block the measure, a federal judge in 2018 ruled against the state. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 reached the same conclusion.

“States may regulate abortion procedures prior to viability so long as they do not impose an undue burden on the woman’s right, but they may not ban abortions. The law at issue is a ban,” 5th Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote.

Abortion remains a divisive issue in the United States, as in many countries. Christian conservatives are among those most opposed to it. U.S. abortion rates have steadily declined since the early 1980s, reaching the lowest levels on record in recent years, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.

Jeanne Mancini, president of the anti-abortion group March for Life, said a ruling limiting abortion to early pregnancy would be in line with many other countries.

“States should be allowed to craft laws that are in line with both public opinion on this issue as well as basic human compassion, instead of the extreme policy that Roe imposed,” Mancini said.

The Louisiana case ruling marked the court’s first major abortion decision since Trump appointed Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017 as justices. Both voted in favor of Louisiana’s restrictions. If Barrett were to vote on similar lines, conservatives could have a majority to curb abortion rights regardless of how Roberts votes. Trump promised during the 2016 presidential race to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

The Mississippi appeal had been pending at the court since June 2020. During that time, Ginsburg died and was replaced by Barrett and Trump lost his re-election bid, to be replaced by Democratic President Joe Biden, who supports abortion rights.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Idaho becomes latest state to pass ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) -Idaho has become the latest Republican-led state to pass a “fetal heartbeat” law, prohibiting abortions after five or six weeks of pregnancy except in medical emergencies or in cases of rape or incest.

The law, signed by Republican Governor Brad Little on Tuesday, follows a wave of similar legislation passed by states aiming to prompt a review of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which guarantees a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

Also on Tuesday, Arizona passed a law banning abortions performed strictly on the basis of genetic disorders detected in the fetus, such as Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis, unless the condition is considered lethal.

“We should never relent in our efforts to protect the lives of the preborn,” Little said in a statement.

The “fetal heartbeat” law bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, often at six weeks. That could be before a woman realizes she is pregnant.

Idaho’s law states that it will only go into effect 30 days after any U.S. appeals court upholds another fetal heartbeat abortion ban, as several states are in legal battles to have their laws enacted.

“This legislation changes nothing,” abortion rights group Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday.

“What it really does is simply set Idaho up for a lawsuit if a similar ban in another federal court upholds their unconstitutional legislation – and there is nothing that indicates that would ever happen. But even if it does, we will launch a lawsuit immediately to stop it,” the statement said.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, with opponents citing religious belief to declare it immoral, and proponents declaring it a women’s health and privacy issue, among other arguments.

Several Republican-led states have passed restrictions on abortions at around six weeks and most are still tied up in the courts. A law passed in Iowa in 2018 was overturned by a state judge in 2019.

“It is undisputed that such cardiac activity is detectable well in advance of the fetus becoming viable,” District Court Judge Michael Huppert wrote in his decision.

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, usually at 24 weeks, is widely considered the threshold in the United States to prohibit abortion.

(Reporting by Gabriella BorterEditing by Bill Berkrot)

Court rules against anti-abortion protesters in New York

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled against anti-abortion protesters who have tried to discourage women from entering a reproductive health clinic in the New York City borough of Queens.

Ruling in favor of the New York attorney general’s office, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims by the 13 protesters that a federal law and a similar state law protecting abortion providers and patients from attacks and threats of force violated their constitutional free speech rights.

In a 116-page decision, Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler said the federal law was designed to be broad, “given the health risks women needing reproductive care face because of the increased stress, anxiety, and agitation” from misconduct by protesters.

The 2-1 majority also said New York faced irreparable harm absent an injunction against the Saturday morning protests at the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica because the protests, which began in 2012, could recur.

Chief Judge Debra Ann Livingston dissented, accusing the majority of effectively creating “‘buffer zone’ equivalents, thereby threatening the ongoing suppression of legitimate First Amendment activity.”

The appeals court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn, who in July 2018 rejected the state’s request for an injunction against the protests.

Neither the protesters’ lawyers nor the office of state Attorney General Letitia James had an immediate comment.

Wednesday’s decision comes as many states and anti-abortion activists push to curb abortion access, hoping a conservative Supreme Court majority will weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right.

The lawsuit had been brought in 2017 by Eric Schneiderman, then New York’s attorney general.

He said protesters crowded women trying to enter the Choices clinic, made death threats to people trying to escort them, and blocked their path with posters purportedly of aborted fetuses.

Amon had found no proof that the protesters intended to “harass, annoy, or alarm” patients and their escorts.

The case is New York v Griepp et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 18-2454, 18-2623, 18-2627 and 18-2630.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)