Supreme Court temporarily allows emergency abortions in Idaho 

A Supreme Court decision announced Thursday allows emergency abortions to proceed in Idaho while a challenge to the state’s abortion law moves through the lower courts. Photo by Madalina Vasiliu 
A Supreme Court decision announced Thursday allows emergency abortions to proceed in Idaho while a challenge to the state’s abortion law moves through the lower courts. Photo by Madalina Vasiliu 

By Matthew Vadum 
Contributing Writer 

The Supreme Court on Thursday decided to dismiss Idaho’s appeal against a lower court ruling that granted an exception to its strict abortion law for abortions deemed to be medical emergencies. 

The new decision allows emergency abortions to proceed in Idaho while a challenge to the state’s abortion law moves through the lower courts. 

President Joe Biden promptly praised the ruling. 

“Today’s Supreme Court order ensures that women in Idaho can access the emergency medical care they need while this case returns to the lower courts. No woman should be denied care, made to wait until she’s near death, or forced to flee her home state just to receive the health care she needs,” he said in a written statement. 

“This should never happen in America. Yet, this is exactly what is happening in states across the country since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.” 

The release of the judicial opinion came after the court’s website staff inadvertently published a version of the document on Wednesday, and then took it down. 

The court’s new opinion is unsigned and marked “per curiam,” which means “for the court.” The opinion also states that the decision to grant the petition and agree to hear the case was “improvidently granted,” which means the justices decided that they had made a mistake in agreeing to hear the case. 

The new opinion was handed down two years after the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the U.S. Constitution does not protect a right to abortion and returned its regulation to the states. The ruling overturned Roe v. Wade (1973). 

A version of the Dobbs opinion was leaked weeks before that decision was published. An investigation by the court failed to identify the source of the leak. The leak was followed by raucous protests at the homes of the court’s conservative justices. One man was arrested for attempting to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Idaho’s Defense of Life Act forbids abortions except when “necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman” or during the first trimester when the pregnancy was caused through rape or incest. Performing an abortion can lead to five years in prison and lead to the revocation of a medical doctor’s license. 

The case was about whether the state law conflicts with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which forbids “patient dumping,” the practice of hospitals refusing emergency treatment to people who can’t afford to pay for medical services. 

The Biden administration says the state law runs afoul of EMTALA, which requires that emergency room patients be provided stabilizing care. The administration argued stabilizing care includes abortions. The government also said that state abortion restrictions such as Idaho’s have confused patients and health care professionals and delayed critical care for pregnant women. 

At the same time, Idaho argued that federal law and the state law are not in conflict. Idaho said the federal government was trying to stretch the reach of the federal law to override the state’s abortion law, as part of an effort to create a federal right to abortion despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs. 

The court heard oral arguments on April 24 in Moyle v. United States, which was consolidated with Idaho v. United States. Lead applicant-petitioner Mike Moyle is the Republican speaker of Idaho’s House of Representatives. The conservative Alliance Defending Freedom is on Idaho’s legal team. 

Representing the Biden administration, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said Idaho’s law was forcing women to leave the state for medical treatment. 

Women are getting airlifted to other states because doctors are afraid to perform abortions, she said at the time. 

“The doctors can’t provide the care” because they fear that a prosecutor is “looking over their shoulder” and may “second-guess” them, Prelogar said. 

Idaho Deputy Solicitor General Joshua N. Turner said EMTALA and the Idaho statute do not conflict. 

The Biden administration’s misreading of EMTALA “lacks any limiting principle,” the attorney said. 

“If ER doctors can perform whatever treatment they determine is appropriate, then doctors can ignore not only state abortion laws, but also state regulations on opioid use and informed consent requirements.” 

EMTALA was passed by Congress in 1986 with the goal of ensuring public access to emergency services regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. 

The federal government took the position that Idaho’s Defense of Life Act was preempted by EMTALA. Federal preemption means that a state law that conflicts with federal law is invalid. 

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in August 2022 that the Idaho law partly conflicts with EMTALA. The judge restrained Idaho from enforcing its state law “as applied to medical care required by” EMTALA. 

In September 2023, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision, finding that EMTALA and the state statute did not conflict, but two months later, the court reinstated the District Court’s injunction. 

The full circuit was preparing to rehear the case, but on Jan. 5, the Supreme Court stepped in and granted Idaho’s request to lift the injunction, pending the outcome of the case at the high court. 

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