Health Care

US Supreme Court allows emergency abortions in Idaho for now

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to permit – for now – abortions to be performed in Idaho when pregnant women are facing medical emergencies, as the justices dispensed with the contentious issue without actually deciding the case on its merits.

The 6-3 ruling, with three of the six conservative justices dissenting, effectively reinstated a federal judge’s decision that Idaho’s Republican-backed near-total abortion ban must yield to a 1986 U.S. law known as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) when the two statutes conflict.

A version of the ruling was inadvertently posted to the court’s website on Wednesday in the second instance in the past two years of the disclosure of a major abortion decision before its formal issuance.

President Joe Biden’s administration had sued Idaho, arguing that EMTALA takes precedence over state law. EMTALA requires hospitals that receive funding under the federal Medicare program to “stabilize” patients with emergency medical conditions. Idaho is among six states with abortion bans that offer no exceptions to protect the health of pregnant women.

“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,” Biden said in a statement. “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. 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,” Biden added, referring to the 2022 decision that reversed the 1973 precedent that had recognized a constitutional right to abortion.

Biden, seeking re-election this year, has sought to make abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign, as Democrats try to use the issue to political advantage against Republicans in races across the country. Donald Trump is the Republican candidate challenging Biden in the Nov. 5 U.S. election.

Trump as president appointed three of the six justices who were in the majority in the 2022 ruling, and he has been on the defensive on the abortion issue during this year’s campaign. Trump has said that in states with abortion bans he backs exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother, and also that he supports the availability of in-vitro fertilization.

Thursday’s decision – an unsigned, one-line order – lifted a block, or stay, that the justices had placed on the judge’s ruling in January. But the Supreme Court did not resolve the underlying legal dispute, opting instead to dismiss the case as “improvidently granted.”

‘FRAGILE DETENTE’

Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in a separate opinion agreed with the court’s decision to lift its stay, but said she would not have dismissed the case, calling the legal situation a “fragile detente.”

This court had a chance to bring clarity and certainty to this tragic situation, and we have squandered it,” Jackson wrote. “And for as long as we refuse to declare what the law requires, pregnant patients in Idaho, Texas and elsewhere will be paying the price.”

Following Roe’s reversal, Republican-backed abortion bans were enacted in a series of states. Idaho’s law banned nearly all abortions unless needed to prevent a mother’s death, threatening doctors who violate it with two to five years in prison and loss of their medical license.

Advocates on both sides of the abortion question voiced disappointment with Thursday’s ruling.

“The court cleaned up part of the mess it created by allowing Idaho’s near-total abortion ban to go into effect temporarily, but it refused to protect both long-term access to medically necessary abortions and the supremacy of federal law,” said Miriam Becker-Cohen, a lawyer at the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal legal group.

“At first blush, the majority’s decision to kick the can down the road might seem like a show of moderation or judicial restraint. But that could not be further from the truth,” Becker-Cohen added.

Danielle White, general counsel at the anti-abortion group Heartbeat International, said the ruling “leaves us with more questions than answers.”

White said that the court “did not settle the question of whether states are required to adopt a broad and sweeping view of EMTALA that leaves them effectively powerless to protect mothers and their unborn children from elective abortion – a question which may very well come back to the court at another time.”

Medical experts have said conditions that could threaten the woman’s life and health – from gestational hypertension to excessive bleeding – could require an abortion to stabilize her or avoid seizures, vital organ damage and failure, or the loss of the uterus.

In a May Reuters/Ipsos poll, 82% of registered voters responding, including 88% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans, said they supported requiring states with strict abortion bans to permit an abortion if necessary to protect the health of a pregnant patient facing a medical emergency.

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