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The Justice Department announced Tuesday that it was suing the state of Idaho over a restrictive abortion ban that would potentially threaten the proper treatment of pregnant emergency room patients.
In an afternoon press conference, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Idaho law was in violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), a federal law that states any “hospital that receives Medicare funds must provide necessary stabilizing treatment to a patient who arrives at an emergency room suffering from a medical condition that could place their life or health in serious jeopardy,” which in some instance could require an abortion.
“When a hospital determines that an abortion is the medical treatment necessary to stabilize a patient’s emergency medical condition, it is required by federal law to provide that treatment,” Garland said. “As detailed in our complaint, Idaho’s law would make it a criminal offense for doctors to provide the emergency medical treatment that federal law requires.”
“Although the Idaho law provides an exception to prevent the death of a pregnant woman, it includes no exception for cases in which the abortion is necessary to prevent serious jeopardy to the woman’s health. Moreover, it would subject doctors to arrest or criminal prosecution even if they performed an abortion to save a woman’s life, and it would then place the burden on the doctors to prove they are not criminally liable.”
The Idaho law, set to go into effect on Aug. 25, would make providing an abortion a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. According to the law, a doctor can avoid prosecution by proving “the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman” or if a copy of a report from specific agencies delivered to the physician says the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. There is no defense for the health of the patient.
The Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade and federal protections on abortion, resulting in strict bans and new laws passed by Republican-controlled states that cut off access to reproductive health for millions. Since those restrictions have gone into place, there have been numerous reports of delayed treatment as doctors have to wait for their patients' conditions to grow worse.
“In the days since the Dobbs decision, there have been widespread reports of delays or denials to pregnant women experiencing medical emergencies,” Garland said. “We will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that pregnant women get the medical care that they are entitled to.”
In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, the Justice Department established a Reproductive Rights Task Force chaired by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. The action against Idaho was described as one of the first major actions of that task force, but Garland said that any state law preventing a hospital from fulfilling its obligation under EMTALA would be in violation of federal law and potentially challenged.
“We know these are frightening times for pregnant women and their [health care] providers, and the Justice Department through the work of its task force is committed to doing everything we can to continue lawful access to reproductive services,” said Gupta at the Tuesday briefing.
When asked why Idaho's was the first law to be challenged, Garland said the Justice Department felt the law directly conflicted with EMTALA, was set to take effect soon and would threaten the health of women coming to emergency rooms, adding, “When we found that statute it was appropriate for us to vindicate the rules that Congress established with EMTALA; that’s why we’re bringing this case.”
Garland also rebuffed the suggestion from a reporter that this action “was going around” the Supreme Court’s June decision.
“The Supreme Court said that each state can make its own decisions with respect to abortion, but so too can the federal government,” Garland said. “Nothing that the Supreme Court said, said that the statutes passed by Congress, such as EMTALA, are in any way invalid. It’s quite the opposite. The Supreme Court left it to the people’s representatives. EMTALA was a decision made by the Congress of the United States. The supremacy clause is a decision made in the Constitution of the United States. Federal law invalidates state laws that are in direct contradiction.”