BOISE — The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a lawsuit that challenges Idaho’s restrictive abortion law, arguing that it conflicts with a federal law requiring doctors to provide pregnant women medically necessary treatment that could include abortion.
The federal government brought the suit seeking to invalidate the state’s “criminal prohibition on providing abortions as applied to women suffering medical emergencies,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
The announcement is the first major action by the Justice Department challenging a state trigger law since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. The court’s decision has led some states to enact restrictive abortion laws and is likely to lead to abortion bans in roughly half the states in the U.S.
The Justice Department brought the suit because federal prosecutors believe Idaho’s law would force doctors to violate the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, a federal law that requires health care providers to treat and stabilize anyone coming to a medical facility for emergencies, Garland said.
“Idaho’s law would make it a criminal offense for doctors to provide the emergency medical treatment that federal law requires,” Garland said.
Idaho, like many Republican-led states, has several anti-abortion laws on the books, creating a legal quagmire now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.
The lawsuit specifically focuses on Idaho’s trigger ban, which is set to take effect on Aug. 25, 30 days after the Supreme Court’s judgment in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
In a statement, Idaho Gov. Brad Little said President Joe Biden was overreaching while ignoring issues like inflation and the Mexico border.
“Our nation’s highest court returned the issue of abortion to the states to regulate – end of story,” Little said.
Idaho’s trigger law has three exemptions: To save the life of the mother and for rape or incest, but only if the patient can provide a police report.
“There is no affirmative defense applicable in circumstances where an abortion is necessary to ensure the health of the pregnant patient — even where the patient faces serious medical jeopardy or impairment — if the care is not “necessary to prevent the death” of the patient,” the lawsuit said.
Essentially, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requires “stabilizing treatment” when someone’s health is in jeopardy and when continuing a pregnancy could result in serious impairment or serious dysfunction of a body part or organ, the lawsuit said.
Under the law, hospitals that receive Medicare funds have to provide the necessary stabilizing treatment to patients who arrive at the emergency department, the lawsuit said. The treatment must be provided before a hospital can transfer or discharge the patient.
In Texas, some hospitals and doctors have delayed treatment after its six-week abortion ban passed last year, the New York Times reported.
The U.S. Constitution contains a supremacy clause that says if a state’s law and a federal law conflict, the federal law prevails, University of Idaho law professor Richard Seamon said.
However, there could be a question about whether the federal government really has the standing, Seamon said, because those with the most at stake are individual women and abortion providers.
Blaine Conzatti, president of Idaho Family Policy Center, said he believes the federal government has no standing to sue states in this area of law.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” Conzatti said. “Ultimately it represents a last-ditch effort on the part of the Biden administration to keep abortion legal in Idaho.”
The lawsuit cites the supremacy clause as well as a section of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act that expressly preempts state laws.
In a statement, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden disagreed with the lawsuit, and said “EMTALA actually states: ‘The provisions of this section do not preempt any State or local law requirement, except to the extent that the requirement directly conflicts with a requirement of this section.’”
The United States is asking for a declaratory judgment declaring the parts of the trigger law invalid that conflict with federal law and that Idaho may not punish medical providers for offering abortions authorized under federal law.
Also, the U.S. wants an injunction against Idaho prohibiting enforcement of the trigger law as it conflicts with federal law. Finally, the United States wants Idaho to pay for its costs in the lawsuit.
Garland, the attorney general, was asked in a press conference why Idaho was first. He said the law seemed to conflict with federal law and was about to take effect.
Idaho has drawn plenty of national attention for its abortion policy. Most recently, the Idaho Republican Party in a vote rejected language that would have added support for life of the mother abortion exemptions to its party platform.
Plus, Idaho’s Texas-style bill — which allows the relatives of rapists to sue a doctor who performs an abortion — was called “uniquely evil” by Vanity Fair.
Many believe that there is no medical complication during pregnancy that would require an abortion. However, some of Idaho’s staunch anti-abortion activists believe otherwise.
“I think the position taken at that (Idaho GOP) convention fails to recognize that there really are circumstances in which the mother is at risk,” David Ripley, executive director of Idaho Chooses Life, told the Idaho Press recently.
Plenty of things can go wrong during pregnancy, though most of the time it doesn’t happen, the Idaho Press previously reported. Often, that’s because many women are younger when they are pregnant.
As pregnancy progresses, there’s a higher risk for developing high blood pressure problems like preeclampsia. The only cure for preeclampsia is delivering the baby.
Another condition is an ectopic pregnancy, which is when the fertilized egg plants itself outside the uterus, often in the fallopian tubes. The pregnancy is not viable, the fallopian tube can rupture and the woman will begin hemorrhaging internally, the Idaho Press previously reported.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho Southern Division.
On Wednesday, the Idaho Supreme Court will hear arguments on key points in two lawsuits challenging Idaho’s trigger law and the Texas-style, six-week abortion ban. Planned Parenthood has filed a third lawsuit targeting a 2021 law though the court has not yet ruled on whether the case will be included Wednesday, the Idaho Press previously reported.
The attorney general’s office confirmed to the Idaho Press that this lawsuit will not impact the matters Wednesday.
Idaho Press reporter Betsy Z. Russell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.