Supreme Court allows emergency abortions in Idaho for now in a limited ruling

Published 1:08 pm Thursday, June 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 was briefly posted on the court’s website accidentally and quickly taken down a day earlier. By a 6-3 vote, it reverses the court’s earlier order that had allowed an Idaho abortion ban to go into effect, even in medical emergencies.

Abortion is front and center in the 2024 election campaign, a direct result of the court’s seismic ruling two years ago that overturned the nationwide right to abortion. But in this decision and another that preserved access to abortion medication, the justices avoided broader rulings that might have further stoked political passions in an election year.

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The Idaho opinion doesn’t answer key questions about whether doctors can provide emergency abortions elsewhere, a significant issue as most Republican-controlled states have moved to restrict the procedure.

In Texas, for example, an appeals court sided with the state, finding federal health care law does not trump a state ban on abortion. Complaints of pregnant patients being turned away from emergency rooms in Texas immediately spiked following the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn a constitutional right to abortion, according to federal documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The current issue came before the high court after the Biden administration sued Idaho to allow abortions in emergency cases where a woman’s health was at serious risk.

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

The contours of the issue have changed in the months since the court decided to take up the case, Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in a concurrence joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“I am now convinced that these cases are no longer appropriate for early resolution,” Barrett wrote, pointing to revisions Idaho made to its abortion ban and the Biden administration making clear that its arguments were aimed at rare cases.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the court should decide now, arguing the earlier order meant Idaho doctors were forced to watch as patients suffered or airlifted out of state for care.

“We had ample time to consider this issue,” she said, underscoring her views by reading a summary of her opinion aloud in the courtroom. “Not doing anything is problematic for several reasons.”

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, also disagreed with the decision to dismiss the case now. Joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, he suggested the court should side with Idaho. Federal health care law “conclusively shows that it does not require hospitals to perform abortions,” he wrote.

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.

Democratic President Joe Biden said the court’s order ensures that Idaho women can get the care they need while the case continues to play out.

“Doctors should be able to practice medicine. Patients should be able to get the care they need,” he said.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 7 in 10 U.S. adults favor protecting access to abortions for patients who are experiencing miscarriages or other pregnancy-related emergencies.

Abortion-rights groups said the opinion would bring temporary relief, but leave “devastating” uncertainty about the larger picture. “This fight is far from over,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

Idaho, meanwhile, had argued that its law does provide an exception to save the life of a pregnant patient and that federal law doesn’t require expanded exceptions.

State Attorney General Raúl Labrador said the Biden administration had “overreached” on the issue and he expected it to end up back before the Supreme Court. “We feel pretty strongly we’re going to win this case in the end,” he said.

Kate Daniel, state policy director for the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, called the decision a “setback,” but maintained that Idaho’s abortion ban does not conflict with federal healthcare law.

The Biden administration has also appealed the Texas emergency abortion ruling to the high court, leaving another avenue for the issue to appear again. The justices are unlikely to even consider whether to take up the Texas case before the fall.