Supreme Court rules Idaho women can get an abortion in an emergency

Posted at 8:37 AM, Jun 27, 2024

The Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for Idaho hospitals to provide emergency abortions for now in a procedural ruling that left key questions unanswered and could mean the issue ends up before the conservative-majority court again soon.

The ruling came after a day an opinion was briefly posted on the court's website accidentally and quickly taken down, but not before it was obtained by Bloomberg.

The final opinion appears largely similar to the draft released early. It reverses the court's earlier order that had allowed an Idaho abortion ban to go into effect, even in medical emergencies.

It does not resolve the issues at the heart of the case, meaning the same justices who voted to overturn the constitutional right to abortion could soon be again considering when doctors can provide abortion in medical emergencies.

Rebecca Gibron, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest Hawai‘i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky and Idaho released a statement saying, “For now, we can take a collective sigh of relief for pregnant people in Idaho. But the truth is that access to life-saving abortion care in an emergency should never have been in doubt. The fact that this right remains in legal limbo is outrageous and shameful. Protecting pregnant people in emergency situations is the bare minimum this court could do and yet they kicked the decision down to a lower court. Two years after the fall of Roe v. Wade, we are seeing just how serious the dangers are to patients’ lives and health without the right to abortion."

Idaho Democratic Party Chair Lauren Necochea released the following statement saying in part, "This ruling provides a temporary sliver of relief to patients facing dire medical emergencies and the doctors and nurses who desperately want to treat them without risking a prison sentence. It does not change that the Idaho Republican supermajority has completely yielded to the anti-abortion hardliners. Patients with a non-emergency health threat, patients with a nonviable pregnancy, rape victims who will almost always be unable to meet the paperwork requirements, and any woman who simply does not want to carry a pregnancy will have no options unless they have the means and time to travel out of state."

The premature release marked the second time in two years that an abortion ruling went out early, though in slightly different circumstances. The court’s seismic ruling ending the constitutional right to abortion was leaked to Politico.

The ruling came in a case filed against Idaho by the Biden administration, which argued that doctors must be allowed to provide emergency abortions under a federal law when a pregnant woman faces serious health risks.

Idaho had pushed back, arguing that its law does provide an exception to save the life of a pregnant patient and federal law doesn't require expanded exceptions.

Doctors in Idaho said that the law wasn't clear on when they could provide abortions in emergencies, forcing them to airlift pregnant women to other states for emergency care on several occasions since the high court had allowed the ban to go into effect in January.

“While there is some relief today, knowing that emergency abortion care will be available in Idaho for the time being, there is still much work to do to ensure Idahoans will have access to emergency health care," said Boise Mayor Lauren McLean. "Pregnant patients and their doctors must still navigate uncertainty under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. Idaho has still lost 22% of our OB-GYNs and 50% of our perinatologists – those who specialize in high-risk pregnancies. Physicians shouldn’t be asked to betray their sacred oaths or navigate legal uncertainty to provide evidence-based healthcare. Women shouldn’t have to suffer from delayed or denied care. No one should have to ask themselves whether it is safe to be pregnant in Idaho.”

The justices found that the court should not have gotten involved in the case so quickly, and a 6-3 majority reinstated a lower court order that had allowed hospitals in the state to perform emergency abortions to protect a pregnant patient’s health.

“Idaho provides a terrifying cautionary tale for our nation,” said Idaho Democratic Party Chair Rep. Lauren Necochea. “When Republican politicians seize power, they cater to the fringe anti-abortion hardliners, no matter the human suffering. Our small state has lost nearly a quarter of our OBGYNs, over half our maternal and fetal medicine specialists, and three labor and delivery wards. In the last few months, Idaho’s largest health system has been airlifting patients with pregnancy complications out of state every two weeks. Lacking any compassion, Republican leaders went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to maintain this horrific reality.”

The opinion means the Idaho case will continue to play out in lower courts, and could end up before the Supreme Court again. It doesn't answer key questions about whether doctors can provide emergency abortions elsewhere, a pressing issue as most Republican-controlled states have moved to restrict the procedure in the two years since the high court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Dr. Megan Kasper, MD, an OB/GYN practicing in Canyon County, and Chair of the IMA Reproductive Health subcommittee, said, “We still need more clarity for our state’s doctors. Even with the Court reinstating EMTALA protections, Idaho’s restrictive abortion laws create confusion about whether necessary care is legal care. No Idaho woman should be forced to leave the state to get the care she needs.”

In a similar case, the state of Texas also argued that federal health care law does not trump a state ban on abortion and the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.

The Idaho ruling doesn't appear to affect that finding. The Biden administration has appealed the case in Texas, leaving another avenue for the issue to appear before the high court. The justices are unlikely to even consider whether to take up the Texas case before the fall.