The Supreme Court Left the Door Open for Attacks on Emergency Medical Care

Personal medical decisions should come from patients and their doctors, not politicians and judges.

Hundreds of counter-protesters during the so-called March for Life, an anti-abortion gathering, in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 16, 2023. (Ying Tang / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Earlier this year, I watched in horror as my home state of Idaho vehemently argued in front of the Supreme Court, asserting that due to our extreme abortion ban, doctors may not provide emergency abortion care—even if a woman’s health is failing. They were adamant, making it clear that our law only allowed providers to intervene in cases of impending death. Their argument wasn’t just unconscionable; it was in violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a nearly 40-year-old federal law that guarantees that anyone can receive treatment for emergency medical condition. Idaho ignored these protections when it passed our oppressive ban, which became the subject of Idaho v. United States.

The Supreme Court handed down its decision last week and vacated the case. This conclusion—at least temporarily—protected a small sliver of the safety net that pregnant patients can count on for care. For the time being, this means that patients in need of emergency abortion care will no longer need to be airlifted out of Idaho, which has been happening since the start of 2024. You would think this decision would be comforting.

It is not.

Instead of doing what it should have done, which was affirm that pregnant people have the same protections as anyone else, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts and left the door open for other extremists to bring this argument again.

Antiabortion politicians and organizations were never going to stop at Dobbs. The decision the justices made in this case doesn’t put an end to this nightmare.

To understand how we got here—where the justices on our nation’s highest court were debating just how many organs need to fail before a woman can get abortion care—we have to travel back in time several years and nearly 2,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., to Boise, Idaho. 

When I was first elected to the Idaho statehouse in 2014, the legislature was already whittling away access to abortion care. This reached a crescendo in 2020 when the Republican supermajority passed a total abortion ban that flatly denied abortion care, even to protect a person’s health. The ban was horrific, but we still had Roe v. Wade at the federal level, which prohibited the trigger law from going into effect. Then, in June 2022, Roe fell.

In a few short months, abortion care was criminalized in Idaho, and a complex web of restrictions that had only existed on paper became real. People could no longer get care in our state—in the first two weeks of the ban going into effect, I was making phone calls to doctors trying to help people who were calling my office, confused about what their options were.

The weight of restrictions fell hardest on people of color and those working to make ends meet who can’t afford to travel out of state. Providing any level of abortion care was perilous, threatening providers with a felony even for stabilizing a patient. Since the ban, 22 percent of OB-GYNs have left our state. We previously had nine maternal-fetal medicine providers; now we have four.

The fallout on medicine was immense, and our abortion ban was clearly in violation of federal law. The U.S. Department of Justice sued Idaho, which led us to the Supreme Court decision last week.

The majority party in the Idaho legislature has left the majority of Idahoans behind. Idaho is a conservative state, I knew that when I moved there in the 1990s. I knew that when I ran for office, I would be part of the legislative minority. But I also know this about the place I call home: the majority of Idahoans support access to abortion care. They may not always talk about it, but in conversations I’ve had with constituents, they make it clear—decisions about when, if, and how to have a child should be made by them, not by me or any other politician. 

The bottom line is that antiabortion politicians and organizations were never going to stop at Dobbs. The decision the justices made in this case doesn’t put an end to this nightmare. They chose to leave providers with uncertainty about how to practice medicine and patients confused about what care is and isn’t available. They left the door open for more states to bring cases, asserting that women must be literally dying before doctors can intervene.

Antiabortion politicians in Idaho have made it clear that they don’t care about Idahoans’ health and well-being. The legislature has dug a hole that the medical system may not dig out of anytime soon. Government interference in medicine has a chilling effect that impacts the entire system, from primary care to geriatrics.

As an elected official who believes the role of government is to improve people’s health and well-being, I will continue to fight against these extreme measures. The courts and state legislatures must do more to protect and expand reproductive freedom nationwide. Personal decisions belong with people, not politicians or judges. Enough is enough. 

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Sen. Melissa Wintrow is the Senate Democratic leader in the Idaho legislature. She is now in her fifth term representing Boise's Legislative District 19 and second term in the Idaho Senate, after completing three terms as a member of the Idaho House of Representatives. Her legislation has focused on healthcare and the criminal legal system. She has drawn on her experience as a women's center director to pass legislation to seek jusice for victims of sexual assault by creating statewide standards to transform how evidence is processed, tracked and preserved, addressing the backlog of rape kits on law enforcement shelves.