Texas Abortion Clinics Head Back to Court to Fight State Law But Have Little Wiggle Room

Texas abortion clinics returned to court on Friday to continue their fight against the state's restrictive abortion law.

The 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans is now tasked with deciding whether to direct a more limited version of the original lawsuit to the Texas Supreme Court or to a federal judge in Austin who has already blocked the restrictions.

After an hour of arguments in court on Friday, the court did not immediately rule on where to send the case. Clinics argued that the procedural debate only guarantees that the restrictions will be in effect for longer.

The Texas law is a near-total ban on abortions, prohibiting the procedure once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which usually falls around six weeks and often occurs before many are aware that they're pregnant. It asks private civilians to help enforce the ban by allowing them to sue clinics, doctors and others who carry out or facilitate an abortion not permitted under the stipulations of the law.

The challenge to the legislation suffered a blow last month when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the law to stay in place, a decision criticized by supporters of abortion rights and lauded by those against abortion rights.

President Joe Biden was among those who expressed concern over the high court's ruling.

"We have more work to do, but I will always stand with women to protect and defend their long-recognized, constitutional right under Roe v. Wade," he said in a statement.

5th U.S. Court of Appeals
The 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans is tasked with deciding whether to direct a more limited version of the original lawsuit to the Texas Supreme Court or to a federal judge in Austin who has already blocked the restrictions. Above, a man walks in front of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on January 7, 2015. Jonathan Bachman/AP Photo

The Supreme Court signaled last month in a separate case out of Mississippi that it would roll back abortion rights, and possibly overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, in a ruling that is expected later this year.

"What happens then? Is this case alive or dead?" Judge Edith Jones asked about the Texas lawsuit.

Attorneys for Texas abortion providers urged the court to take swift action.

The law has been in effect since September. Since then, doctors say they are serving roughly a third of their usual patient volume, while abortion clinics in neighboring states are backlogged with women traveling from Texas.

Although the Supreme Court allowed Texas clinics' lawsuit against the ban to proceed, five conservative justices formed a majority to limit who can be sued to Texas licensing officials.

Both sides have said that would probably prevent federal courts from effectively blocking the law, which has proved durable because of its novel scheme that leaves enforcement solely up to private lawsuits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.