Department of Justice files lawsuit against Idaho abortion law

Photo by Taya Thornton | The Arbiter

On Aug. 2, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Idaho’s new law regulating the practice of abortion (Idaho Code §18-622), marking the Biden Administration’s first legal action to protect access to abortions since Roe v. Wade was overturned. 

The Idaho law was triggered following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue of abortion to the states. The trigger law took effect Aug. 25 and makes it a criminal offense for health care professionals to provide an abortion under almost any circumstance. 

Idaho’s law only makes exceptions if the abortion is essential in preventing the death of the birthing person or in instances of rape or incest, in which case a police report is required. Medical professionals found violating said law could be subject to up to five years in prison. 

“[The trigger law] is super strict. I think it’s important, for doctors and women, to not be scared of the law when it’s an emergency,” said Jenna, a sophomore communication major at Boise State, who asked for only her first name to be used to protect her privacy.

The lawsuit against the state of Idaho is the first major motion of the Reproductive Rights Task Force, which the Justice Department established following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The Department of Justice argues that §18-622 is preempted by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). EMTALA requires Medicare-funded hospitals to provide stabilizing treatment to any patient that arrives. 

“When a physician reasonably determines that the necessary stabilizing treatment is an abortion, state law cannot prohibit the provision of that care,” the Department of Justice stated in a press release

abortion protest
[Protestor holds sign at a reproductive rights demonstration in Boise, Idaho.]
Photo by Taya Thornton | The Arbiter

When the two are in conflict, federal law will always trump state according to the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution. 

Idaho government officials believe that the federal government is in the wrong with their lawsuit, arguing that it was the responsibility of the Department of Justice to work with Idaho to ensure EMTALA and the trigger law were in agreement.

“Instead of complying with the requirements of this provision and reconciling Idaho’s law with EMTALA, or even attempting to engage Idaho in a meaningful dialogue on the issue, the federal government has chosen to waste taxpayer dollars on an unnecessary lawsuit,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said in a public statement.

This sentiment was mimicked by Gov. Brad Little, who in a press release stated he “will continue to work with Attorney General Wasden to vigorously uphold state sovereignty and defend Idaho’s laws in the face of federal meddling.”

While Idaho is standing firm behind its law, dozens of other states have expressed support for the Department of Justice. On Aug. 16, the attorney generals in 20 states, along with the District of Columbia, collectively filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Idaho.

“If patients in Idaho are denied necessary emergency abortion care, they may travel to nearby States,” the brief said. “These States would experience additional pressures on their already overwhelmed hospital systems.”

The Department of Justice filed a preliminary injunction on Aug. 8 to stop Idaho’s trigger law from taking effect while the lawsuit is settled. Planned Parenthood filed a similar motion against Idaho earlier in the summer, but was denied by the Idaho Supreme Court in a 3-2 decision.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill heard arguments for the Department of Justice’s preliminary injunction request on Aug. 22. Winmill has made it clear that this case is not about the legality of abortions, but rather conflict between state and federal law. 

“Dobbs is the law of the land and that will not be questioned here,” Winmill said during the hearing. 

The hearing was centered around scenarios in which an abortion may be needed to avoid further medical issues, but not necessary to save the person’s life. 

“It’s just crazy to me that women might have to experience avoidable [medical] problems because they were told they can’t have an abortion,” Jenna said. 

One example that was repeatedly brought up in court was what happens when a patient suffers an ectopic pregnancy  — when an egg implants outside the womb. In this situation, the individual’s life may not be in any immediate danger right away, meaning that aborting the fetus would violate Idaho law despite the fact that the pregnancy could become life-threatening later on and will never be sustainable.

Attorneys for the Idaho Legislature argued that doctors will still be able to use their best medical judgment, stating in court that “in the real world there will not be prosecution [in such situations].”

After just two days of deliberation, Winmill released a written statement partially blocking Idaho’s trigger law. 

The entirety of the law was not blocked, but Winmill agreed that the trigger law does not include enough provisions to protect medical professionals who perform an abortion during an emergency.

“The court does not find the State’s argument pervasive because it has failed to properly account for the staggeringly broad scope of the law, which has been accurately characterized … as a ‘total abortion ban,’” Winmill wrote. 

The ruling in the lawsuit against Idaho has the potential to set a precedent for similar lawsuits that could be seen throughout the country. Other states attempting to enact abortion bans may have to expand their exemptions for medical emergencies.

The state of Idaho is expected to appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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