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Judge blocks enforcement of Idaho’s abortion ban in medical emergencies day before it was set to take effect


“This Court is not grappling with” the larger questions about a right to an abortion, US District Judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote in handing down a preliminary injunction. “Rather, the Court is called upon to address a far more modest issue — whether Idaho’s criminal abortion statute conflicts with a small but important corner of federal legislation. It does.”

The Biden administration had challenged parts of Idaho’s abortion ban, which was set to take effect on Thursday, under a law known as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act or EMTALA, which establishes emergency care requirements for certain health care providers. Winmill said Wednesday that the Justice Department was likely to succeed in its argument that Idaho’s abortion ban criminalized abortion care that physicians are obligated to offer in medical emergencies under EMTALA.

“In short, given the extraordinarily broad scope of Idaho Code § 18-622, neither the State nor the Legislature have convinced the Court that it is possible for healthcare workers to simultaneously comply with their obligations under EMTALA and Idaho statutory law,” the judge wrote. “The state law must therefore yield to federal law to the extent of that conflict.”

The Idaho attorney general’s office declined to comment Wednesday when asked by CNN whether it planned to appeal the order.

The exception the Idaho abortion ban offers for emergency medical situations is among the most limited in the country. It applies only when the provider believes the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant person, stopping short of allowing abortions for other serious health risks that EMTALA contemplates. And the law doesn’t exempt providers who offer that emergency care from being charged with a crime; rather it allows them to put forward that justification as an affirmative defense at trial.

“When an abortion is the necessary stabilizing treatment, EMTALA directs physicians to provide that care if they reasonably expect the patient’s condition will result in serious impairment to bodily functions, serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part, or serious jeopardy to the patient’s health,” the judge wrote. “In contrast, the criminal abortion statute admits to no such exception. It only justifies abortions that the treating physician determines are necessary to prevent the patient’s death.”

The order is a win for the Biden administration, as it has had few tools at its disposal to respond to the Supreme Court’s reversal in June of Roe v. Wade’s federal abortion rights protections.

“Today’s decision by the District Court for the District of Idaho ensures that women in the State of Idaho can obtain the emergency medical treatment to which they are entitled under federal law. This includes abortion when that is the necessary treatment,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Wednesday.

In a dueling case arising out of Texas, a federal judge pushed back on the administration’s interpretation of EMTALA as requiring abortion care in medical emergencies. In that case, the judge issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday night against the administration, halting it from enforcing EMTALA in that manner in Texas and against an organization of doctors who joined Texas in challenging the administration’s policy.

This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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