Supreme Court to Review Case Challenging Idaho’s Strict Abortion Ban in Conflict with Federal Law

BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Friday that it will review a case challenging Idaho’s strict abortion ban. The Biden administration argues that the ban conflicts with a federal law that requires emergency room doctors to perform the procedure in certain circumstances.

Idaho’s attorney general sought the intervention of the Supreme Court after a lower court judge blocked a provision in the state’s abortion statute that targeted doctors. The judge ruled that the provision violated a federal law that guarantees emergency care for hospitals receiving Medicare funding. The Supreme Court allowed the Idaho law to take full effect for now, but said it would review the matter in April on an expedited basis.

The Biden administration has turned to the Medicare law as a strategic approach to challenging state-level abortion bans in federal court. This effort is seen as one of the few options available to the administration to protect access to abortion, a divisive issue leading up to the 2024 presidential election, after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned the right to abortion established in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

In addition to the Idaho case, the Supreme Court will also decide on whether to restrict access to mifepristone, a widely used abortion medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration over 20 years ago.

Idaho was one of several states that enacted trigger laws before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, anticipating that their bans would go into effect if Roe v. Wade was overturned. Idaho’s law, passed in 2020, prohibits most abortions and imposes penalties on doctors who perform the procedure. However, there is an exception when the procedure is necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman.

Abortion rights advocates and medical experts argue that the Idaho law, along with similar bans in other states, exposes doctors and hospitals to legal risks when making life-or-death decisions for pregnant patients. These healthcare professionals also face challenges when interpreting vague medical exceptions to determine the permissibility of terminating a pregnancy in certain circumstances.

The 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, a conservative panel, recently ruled against the Biden administration in a similar case in Texas, stating that hospitals and doctors in the state are not obligated to perform abortions under the federal emergency-care law.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, passed nearly 40 years ago, ensures that hospitals receiving Medicare funds provide treatment or transfer patients with emergency medical conditions. Following the Dobbs decision, the federal government issued new guidance stating that the law requires health-stabilizing treatment for all patients, including abortion if necessary.

The Biden administration sued Idaho last year, contending that the state’s abortion ban does not sufficiently allow physicians to perform abortions in emergency situations. The apposite federal law protects patients not only from imminent death but also from emergencies that pose serious threats to their health.

In August 2022, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill temporarily blocked the contested provision of the Idaho law, leaving the ban on most abortions in place. Winmill ruled that hospitals must provide health-stabilizing treatment, which could include abortion, considering the conflicting federal law.

However, a unanimous panel of the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals stayed Winmill’s order. The full appeals court reversed this decision in November, stating that the provision would remain blocked during ongoing appeals. Idaho subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court.

Idaho Attorney General Raúl R. Labrador, supported by the Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the lower court’s decision essentially turns federal protections into a “federal super-statute on the issue of abortion.” They claimed that Idaho’s interest in protecting innocent human life and maintaining state standards of care are being undermined.

As the Supreme Court prepares to review the Idaho case, uncertainty surrounds healthcare providers and patients. Doctors like Sara Thomson, an OB/GYN in Idaho, have struggled to determine which patients they can treat under the state’s ban. The shifting court decisions have forced them to reconsider their legal obligations and the pregnancy conditions they can address.

As the review approaches, the future of abortion access in Idaho hangs in the balance. The outcome of this case could have implications for reproductive rights nationwide.