Supreme Court Allows Enforcement of Idaho’s Abortion Ban, Pending April Hearing

A protest in support of abortion rights in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on Aug. 25, 2022—the day Idaho’s trigger law went in to effect, making most abortions illegal in the state. (Natalie Behring / Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court released a brief order late last week that allows Idaho to continue to enforce its near-total abortion ban, even in medical emergencies. The ruling is a response to an effort from the Biden administration to ensure additional abortion access in hospitals located in states with bans. The Court also agreed to hear the dispute between the state and the Biden administration over the constitutionality of the law in its April session.

Idaho’s law was initially blocked by the lower district court, but a three-judge panel (all Trump appointees) of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. However, the full Ninth Circuit court reversed that panel’s ruling, blocking the law once again while the court considered the case—leading to the Supreme Court’s intervention. This is the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled on a state abortion ban since Roe was overturned.

If Idaho’s law stands, emergency room physicians will be forced to wait until their patient is close to death to provide medically necessary care, in order to avoid criminal charges. The ruling would also likely embolden other states to pass more restrictive laws. Arguments on this case will begin in April, with a decision expected by the end of June.    

Background

When Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, Idaho’s trigger ban went into effect, criminalizing abortion procedures in all cases except to “prevent the death of the pregnant woman.” The law states that “every person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion commits the crime of criminal abortion,” even when the woman’s health is greatly endangered, and may be sentenced to five years in prison. 

In an attempt to protect abortion access after the Dobbs decision, the Biden administration issued guidance stating that abortions can be required in emergency situations, even in states that ban the procedure, due to the precedence of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Following this guidance, the Justice Department sued the state of Idaho on the grounds that the state’s abortion ban violates EMTALA and obtained a preliminary injunction, successfully blocking enforcement of the abortion ban.

The law at the center of this case, EMTALA, was enacted in 1986 in order to safeguard access to emergency healthcare services, regardless of a patient’s financial situation. As a result, Medicare-participating hospitals must abide by specific obligations when treating patients with emergency medical conditions, which includes active labor. Hospitals are obligated to provide appropriate stabilizing treatments in emergencies or transfer the patient to another facility. EMTALA requires these treatments even in non-fatal cases—so the Justice Department argued that Idaho’s abortion ban exception is too narrow, criminalizing basic care that is required by federal law.

“Today’s Supreme Court order … denies women critical emergency abortion care required by federal law,” said President Joe Biden in response to the ruling. “The overturning of Roe v. Wade has enabled Republican elected officials to pursue dangerous abortion bans like this one that continue to jeopardize women’s health, force them to travel out of state for care, and make it harder for doctors to provide care, including in an emergency. These bans are also forcing doctors to leave Idaho and other states because of laws that interfere with their ability to care for their patients. This should never happen in America.”

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About

Madelyn Amos is a National Programs Associate with the Feminist Majority Foundation. She previously worked as a campaign manager for the Democratic Party of Illinois in the 2020 election cycle after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill. She has her Masters in Public Administration from American University.