(Bloomberg) — The Biden administration won a court order ensuring women in Idaho can get abortions in medical emergencies, less than a day after losing a similar battle in Texas.
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The mixed results in preliminary rulings indicate intense contentious litigation over state restrictions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal right to due process.
The decision in Boise came after Idaho lawmakers proposed changing the state’s so-called trigger ban in response to criticism by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill that it conflicts with medical protections under federal law.
The judge’s ruling temporarily blocking the Idaho law came a day before the measure — which allows prosecution of abortion doctors — was set to go into effect.
The showdowns in Texas and Idaho offer a preview of how battles may play out in other conservative states with laws aimed at criminalizing abortion.
Winmill, who was appointed by Democrat Bill Clinton, agreed with the US Justice Department’s argument that the exception in Idaho’s measure allowing abortions to prevent the death of a pregnant woman is too narrow. To comply with federal law, the US argued, doctors must be protected from prosecution for cases in which an abortion is necessary to prevent a serious risk to a woman’s health.
In his ruling, Winmill said it was “impossible” for doctors to comply with both the state bill that makes it illegal to perform an abortion unless the woman’s life is in danger, and the federal law that requires Medicare providers to provide adequate emergency care.
The judge wrote that the federal Emergency Medical Care and Labor Act was passed in 1986 “with the primary purpose of ensuring that all patients receive adequate emergency medical care.”
Read more: Biden’s bid to guarantee access to emergency abortion rejected in Texas
The Texas judge, an appointee of Republican Donald Trump, reached the opposite conclusion: Doctors will have to abide by Texas’ abortion law while the case plays out in court.
Now that the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, widespread access to abortion is no longer guaranteed, and “the Biden administration is nibbling at the edges,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law School. .
The victory in Idaho will encourage the Justice Department to bring more such lawsuits, although some will fail because they will come before judges more partial to states’ rights, he added.
“Biden has broad public support for sensible abortion policies that absolutely include protecting the health and lives of pregnant women,” he said. “I fully expected Biden to lose in Texas.”
Gostin predicted that the issue of whether abortion restrictions must comply with Emtala will eventually end up in the Supreme Court.
According to Emtala, emergency rooms must stabilize patients suffering from a medical emergency. For pregnant patients, this may include ectopic pregnancy, complications from miscarriage or pre-eclampsia.
Wednesday’s decision in Idaho applies only to women who urgently need an emergency abortion and does not apply to the majority of patients seeking the procedure.
“But given that these women face serious harm and even death, winning this battle is extremely important,” said Michelle Mello, a professor at Stanford Law School.
He said it’s also a relief for doctors, whose rights to determine when an abortion is medically necessary have been clouded by vague terms in some states’ abortion bans.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now about who’s going to make that call,” he said. Wednesday’s decision “could help people feel more comfortable legally by returning that decision to doctors.”
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Washden said the Justice Department’s lawsuit filed earlier this month was “politically motivated.” The state argued that the measure does not conflict with Emtala.
Wasden’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision.
In court filings, at least 16 US states have lined up behind Idaho in the case before Winmill, including Indiana, Texas and several other southern states, as well as neighboring Wyoming and Utah.
Twenty states and Washington, DC have sided with the Justice Department, including New York, California, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The case is US v. Idaho, 22-cv-329, U.S. District Court, District of Idaho, Southern Division (Boise).
(Updates with a request for comment from the Idaho attorney general)
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