SCOTUS Appears Split on Emergency Abortions Case

Solicitor general says Idaho law has left patients, doctors in an 'impossible position'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 24, 2024 1:15 PM CDT
SCOTUS Hears Case on Emergency Abortions
Anti-abortion activists rally outside the Supreme Court, Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Washington.   (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

As pro- and anti-abortion rights protesters gathered outside, the Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that pits Idaho's strict abortion law against a federal law on emergency treatment. The Washington Post reports that the court's conservative justices appeared skeptical of arguments that a 1986 federal law known as EMTALA requires hospitals accepting Medicaid to provide emergency abortion care when a woman's health is at risk. EMTALA requires hospitals to treat emergency patients whether or not they can afford to pay; Idaho accuses the Biden administration of misusing the law.

  • The Idaho law. Under Idaho's law, doctors can only perform abortions when "necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman." Doctors say that women whose conditions would normally be treated with abortions are being forced to leave the state because doctors can't legally perform abortions until the women are close to death, the AP reports. In January, the Supreme Court allowed Idaho to enforce that ban while the case is ongoing.

  • An "impossible position." Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing for the Biden administration, said the Idaho law left doctors and patients in an "impossible position" when a woman was seriously ill but not near death, NBC News reports. EMTALA, she said, requires hospitals to provide "necessary stabilizing treatment." She said one hospital system is "having to transfer pregnant women in medical crisis out of the state about once every other week."
  • Liberal justices raise "harrowing examples." The Post reports that the court's liberal justices raised "detailed, harrowing examples of women facing health emergencies short of death, including infertility and kidney failure." Justice Elena Kagan said there are a "significant number" of cases "where the woman's life is not in peril, but she's going to lose her reproductive organs. She's going to lose the ability to have children in the future unless an abortion takes place."
  • Key votes. CNN reports that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett are likely to be key swing votes, while Justice Brett Kavanaugh and other conservatives appeared skeptical about the reach of the federal law. Barrett had what the Hill calls "sharp questions" for Josh Turney, Idaho's attorney, about how much discretion the state's law gives doctors in medical emergencies. In response to a question from Roberts, Prelogar said the federal law "absolutely" protects a doctor's ability to refuse to perform an abortion if the doctor objects to abortion, the New York Times reports.
  • Mental health. In response to a question from Justice Samuel Alito over whether the federal law would require abortions in cases of mental health emergencies, Prelogar said that would not happen. "Let me be very clear about our position," she said, per the Times. "That could never lead to pregnancy termination because that is not the accepted standard of practice to treat any mental health emergency."
  • Conservatives unswayed. The AP reports that the court's most conservative justices, including Alito, who wrote the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, appeared unswayed by Prelogar's arguments. "How can you impose restrictions on what Idaho can criminalize, simply because hospitals in Idaho have chosen to participate in Medicare?" he asked.
(More abortion stories.)

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