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Federal judge temporarily blocks enforcement of Texas law banning most abortions

"Women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution," the judge says in his ruling.

A federal judge granted the Justice Department a temporary injunction late Wednesday blocking the enforcement of Texas' strict abortion law.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued the order, which will block the state from enforcing the law, known as S.B. 8, which was passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. The Supreme Court declined in September to block the law while legal challenges are pending.

"From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution," Pitman said in his ruling. "That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right."

Pitman said the Texas Legislature "contrived an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme" to enact a near-total ban on abortions in the state.

The law prohibits women from obtaining abortions if fetal cardiac activity can be detected. In most cases, that is around six weeks, when many women are not yet aware that they are pregnant. Unlike other states' anti-abortion laws, Texas' ban allows private citizens to enforce the law by suing violators — entitling them to at least $10,000 in damages per defendant if they are successful.

Lawyers for the Justice Department appeared in federal court in Texas on Friday to ask a judge to block the law, arguing that it is "in open defiance of the Constitution."

Lawyers for the state attorney general's office have maintained that the law is constitutional and had asked Pitman to deny the request for a preliminary injunction.

Texas swiftly appealed Pitman's order to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which could issue a stay and allow the law to remain in effect while litigation proceeds.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the ruling was "an important step forward toward restoring the constitutional rights of women across the state of Texas."

"The fight has only just begun, both in Texas and in many states across this country where women's rights are currently under attack," her statement continued. "That's why the President supports codifying Roe v. Wade, why he has directed a whole-of-government response to S.B. 8, and why he will continue to stand side-by-side with women across the country to protect their constitutional rights."

Attorney General Merrick Garland celebrated the ruling in a statement Wednesday night.

"Today's ruling enjoining the Texas law is a victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law," he said. "It is the foremost responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Constitution. We will continue to protect constitutional rights against all who would seek to undermine them."

Prompted by the Texas law, thousands of people rallied nationwide last weekend in support of abortion rights. Pressure has been mounting on lawmakers to act on the issue as more GOP-led states consider bills to restrict abortion and are being challenged in the courts.

Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, criticized the decision in a statement, arguing that "an unelected judge has interfered with the clearly expressed will of Texans."

"The people of Texas speaking through their state legislators acted to protect unborn children with beating hearts, who are as human as you and me," said the group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. "It is time to restore this right to the people and update our laws."

Alexis McGill Johnson, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, praised the ruling in a statement.

"For more than a month now, Texans have been deprived of abortion access because of an unconstitutional law that never should have gone into effect," Johnson said. "While this fight is far from over, we are hopeful that the court's order blocking S.B. 8 will allow Texas abortion providers to resume services as soon as possible."

The Supreme Court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, in December will also consider the legality of Mississippi's abortion law, another challenge to the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortions nationwide.

Chloe Atkins and Daniel Barnes contributed.