AUSTIN — Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges signaled they may be willing to slow-play remaining legal challenges to Texas’s controversial and restrictive abortion ban after oral arguments in the case Friday.

The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, remains narrowly alive after the U.S. Supreme Court greatly limited who abortion providers could sue in its December decision. SCOTUS did, however, allow for abortion providers to continue litigation against Texas licensing officials and sent the case back to the lower court to make a decision on how it should proceed.

Now federal judges are to decide next steps, but they don’t appear to be in any rush.

“I don't understand the urgency of this particular lawsuit given how the Supreme Court has narrowed the potential universe of relief,” Judge Kyle Duncan said.

Texas’s Senate Bill 8, which went into effect on Sept. 1, rose to national attention as it bans nearly all abortions in the state after six weeks, before most women know they are pregnant. It enforces this by allowing anyone to sue someone who “aids or abet” in an abortion such as doctors and nurses, essentially establishing a bounty system where successful litigants can collect up to $10,000.

This can become an issue when doctors or nurses apply for any kind of professional license since they have to acknowledge whether a lawsuit has been filed against them. Should they be sued for performing abortions, medical licensing officials could withhold their credentials essentially barring them from practicing anywhere.

"The Supreme Court has ruled that Texas law apparently allows the licensing officials to take actions against medical licenses and so it's a very different world in which now a provider has to decide not only am I going to risk all of these lawsuits but also risk my medical license," said Marc Hearron, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, who argued on behalf of Whole Woman’s Health.

Now, the court is tasked with deciding whether to send the case to the Texas Supreme Court — as the state would like — or the District Court — which leans more favorably toward the abortion advocates and is the choice of Whole Woman’s — to consider the question.

Following Friday’s argument’s it appeared the court was leaning toward the state’s stance on sending the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

Advocates have accused the court’s decision to hold oral arguments as a stall tactic issuing a last-ditch effort Monday, requesting SCOTUS send the case directly to the district court to stop further delays. SCOTUS did not entertain that request and now it sits in the hands of the appellate court.

“The only thing this court has jurisdiction left to do is remand to the district court and it should do so immediately,” Hearron said.

It was not clear when the court would issue a decision, but judges did inquire how the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case currently before SCOTUS has the potential to impact decisions. Dobbs, based out of Mississippi, is widely believed to be the case that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

Decisions surrounding S.B. 8 could have vast implications across the country, threatening access to safe abortions in states who wish to reduce access.

Since the law went into effect in Texas, abortion procedures in the state immediately dropped by half, according to Texas Tribune reporting.

The Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance operates four clinics in Texas.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, its president and CEO, said the clinics continue to turn away devastated patients every day as it has suspended abortion services while legal challenges work through the courts.

“Senate Bill 8 has now been in effect for 129 days and it’s causing irreparable harm to people, families, and Texas communities,” Hagstrom Miller said. “We had hoped for the Supreme Court to block this unconstitutional law, but that didn’t happen. So, we have to keep fighting for relief, especially before this law shows up in other states. We will not stop until SB 8 is blocked for good and we are committed to seeing this challenge through to the end."

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