Supreme Court Allows Emergency Abortions in Idaho for Now

(Bloomberg) -- The US Supreme Court confirmed it will let abortions take place in medical emergencies in Idaho for the time being, making official a decision that was inadvertently posted online on Wednesday.

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Over three dissents, the justices reinstated a federal trial court order that ensures hospitals in the state can perform emergency abortions to protect the health of the mother. The Supreme Court had blocked that order in January, letting Idaho fully enforce its near-total ban for five months.

The about-face is at least a temporary victory for abortion-rights advocates. Doctors and hospital administrators say the state’s law was keeping them from treating women with serious health risks even if they had no chance to deliver a healthy baby. Patients instead were forced to wait days for treatment or be rushed out of state.

The decision “ensures that women in Idaho can access the emergency medical care they need while this case returns to the lower courts,” President Joe 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.”

The court took up the case to consider whether a federal hospital law guarantees that patients can get abortions to prevent a serious health risk, even in states like Idaho that allow the procedure only when the mother’s life is in danger. But the justices opted not to resolve that issue, instead dismissing an appeal by Idaho and some of its Republican lawmakers.

‘Inadvertent’ Release

Bloomberg Law obtained an early copy of the opinion, which was posted briefly on the court’s website Wednesday morning. A court spokeswoman said then that the document was uploaded “inadvertently” and that the Idaho opinion would be released in “due course.”

The final decision didn’t include any substantive changes from the version Bloomberg obtained.

The court as a whole didn’t explain its decision. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that the “shape of these cases has substantially shifted” since the court said in January it would take up the dispute.

In an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Barrett pointed to what she said was a clarification by the Biden administration about the reach of the federal law. Barrett also said Idaho law had changed since the district judge considered the case.

The high court decision shifts the focus of the case to a San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which will now consider appeals by the state and Republican lawmakers. The Supreme Court’s January decision to take up the case was an unusual move that would have meant bypassing the 9th Circuit.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote separately to say that she wouldn’t have dismissed the case. She read a summary of her opinion from the bench for emphasis.

‘Not a Victory’

“Today’s decision is not a victory for pregnant patients in Idaho. It is delay,” she wrote. “While this court dawdles and the country waits, pregnant people experiencing emergency medical conditions remain in a precarious position, as their doctors are kept in the dark about what the law requires.”

The Biden administration argued that the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act overrides state abortion bans when someone shows up at a hospital with a medical emergency. EMTALA as the 1986 law is known, requires hospitals receiving federal funds to provide stabilizing care to those patients.

The administration sued just before the Idaho ban took effect in August 2022, and two lower courts had said doctors could continue performing abortions in health emergencies while the legal fight goes forward. The Supreme Court intervened in January, putting the lower court rulings on hold and announcing the justices would hear arguments.

The cases are Moyle v. United States, 23-726, and Idaho v. United States, 23-727.

--With assistance from Zoe Tillman, Kimberly Robinson and Lydia Wheeler.

(Updates with Biden reaction in fourth paragraph.)

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