By John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday let Idaho enforce its near-total abortion ban in medical-emergency situations while also agreeing to hear the fight between state officials and President Joe Biden’s administration over the legality of the Republican-backed measure.
The justices granted a request by Idaho officials to temporarily lift a federal judge’s ruling that blocked the state’s abortion measure after concluding it must yield to a federal law that ensures that patients can receive emergency “stabilizing care.”
The case tees up another showdown over abortion access, coming after the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, in June 2022 overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized abortion nationwide. Arguments in the Idaho case are expected in April, with a ruling by the end of June.
Biden said the Supreme Court order to let Idaho enforce its strict abortion ban “denies women critical emergency abortion care required by federal law.”
“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,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
The justices in the coming months also are scheduled to hear another major case on reproductive rights involving the Biden administration’s bid to preserve broad access to the abortion pill mifepristone.
Idaho officials in November urged the justices to pause U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s August 2022 preliminary injunction issued after he concluded that the abortion measure conflicted with a 1986 U.S. law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which requires hospitals to “stabilize” patients with emergency medical conditions.
Idaho’s Republican attorney general and top Republican state lawmakers in court papers told the Supreme Court that Winmill’s ruling had permitted “an ongoing violation of both Idaho’s sovereignty and its traditional police power over medical practice.”
Idaho was among the Republican-led states where new abortion restrictions were introduced or took effect after the Supreme Court’s Roe reversal.
In Idaho, a so-called “trigger” law banning abortion that was passed by the Republican-led state legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2020 automatically took effect upon Roe being overturned. Idaho’s law, known as the Defense of Life Act, bans all abortions except in instances in which an abortion is found to be necessary to prevent the mother’s death.
Following Roe’s demise, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Biden’s direction issued federal guidance stating that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act takes precedence over state abortion bans.
CHALLENGES TO IDAHO LAW
The Biden administration sued Idaho over its trigger law in August 2022, arguing that the measure conflicted with the 1986 law because the federal statute could potentially require abortions that would not be included under Idaho’s narrow exception for saving the mother’s life.
Winmill that month agreed, blocking the Idaho law from being enforced in cases of abortions needed to avoid putting the woman’s health in “serious jeopardy” or risking “serious impairment to bodily functions.”
A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September agreed to let Idaho enforce its ban amid an appeal. But the full 9th Circuit later reversed the panel’s ruling, granting the Biden administration’s request to block the Idaho law while the appeal proceeds.
Abortion rights advocates have challenged the scope of abortion ban exceptions in several states due to uncertainty, including among physicians, about what medical emergencies during pregnancy would permit health providers to perform the procedure.
The administration has waged a similar legal fight in Texas, where U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix blocked the federal government from requiring healthcare providers to perform abortions for emergency room patients when it would conflict with a Republican-backed Texas abortion ban.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 2 upheld that decision, ruling that the 1986 law “does not mandate any specific type of medical treatment, let alone abortion.” The 5th Circuit’s decision came a month after the top court in Texas ruled against a woman who was seeking an emergency abortion of her non-viable pregnancy.
(Reporting by John Kruzel; additional reporting by Kanishka SIngh; Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman)