Health

U.S. Supreme Court Releases Final Decision On Idaho Emergency Abortion Case

Advocates for reproductive rights marched in this year's Women's March.
Advocates for reproductive rights marched in this year's Women's March. Screenshot
Thursday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed health care providers in Idaho could continue to perform emergency abortions for the time being. The formal decision comes a day after an opinion on the case was inadvertently posted on the court’s website.

The 6-3 opinion did not include a determination of the matter at the center of the challenge brought forth by the Biden Administration. The court opted to dismiss the appeal without considering whether Idaho acted within its rights or whether federal law superseded Idaho’s near-total ban on abortion.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requires all hospitals enrolled in Medicare to provide stabilizing care — including abortion care — to patients having a medical emergency.

“We were hoping that there would be a more substantive decision from the Supreme Court that allowed that guidance to be in place in states across the country,” Wendy Davis, senior advisor for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said. “That’s not what happened.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett split from their conservative counterparts. They voted to dismiss the case alongside liberal justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas joined in dissent.

The Idaho case is expected to return to the lower courts and the hands of district court judge B. Lynn Winmill, who previously blocked Idaho’s abortion law from going into effect.

Reproductive rights advocates felt the shockwaves of the Thursday decision in Texas. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton brought forth a similar case against the Biden Administration, which is currently pending in the courts.

Paxton filed the lawsuit, challenging the federal government’s ability to require hospitals to offer emergency abortions. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas. If the ruling is challenged and goes to the Supreme Court, it will likely be heard next fall.

“There will be no relief granted to people in Texas,” Davis said. “This could have provided doctors with more flexibility in determining when they could legally intervene when a patient’s health was at risk.”

“We’re still living in the Fifth Circuit’s prohibition on applying EMTALA. It ruled that EMTALA could not trump state abortion laws,” she added. “So for Texans, that will continue to be the status quo unless or until the Supreme Court takes up this decision when it reconvenes in the fall.”

According to Davis, the matter will likely go before the nation’s highest court only if President Joe Biden is reelected. If former president Donald Trump enters into another term, Davis said his administration will almost certainly implement a different interpretation of EMTALA that prohibits its use in superseding state abortion laws.

Davis noted the longer-term concern she and other experts have is that the Supreme Court is essentially kicking the can down the road on this decision and the case involving access to a commonly used abortion drug, Mifepristone.

The nation's highest court heard oral arguments on this case in March and subsequently ruled against applying restrictions to the pill in June. However, Davis noted that their decision was based on standing.

“It has a significant impact potentially. It’s not just that we have to wait for the next Supreme Court term when they take up the substantive merits of these questions,” Davis said. “It’s the fact that there may be an intervening Trump administration that creates the kind of clarity that anti-abortion extremists are looking for and does away with the need for the court even to consider the merits of these cases.”

“We are grateful that women in Idaho were given some at least temporary relief from their state abortion law, but that is not the case for us here in Texas,” she added.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.