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Judge grants Justice Department request to block part of incoming Idaho abortion law

Wednesday’s court ruling blocks parts of Idaho's abortion law set to take effect Thursday.

(CN) — A federal judge blocked part of Idaho’s abortion law on Wednesday, one day before the near-total ban on abortions was set to take effect statewide.

Ruling in favor of the Department of Justice, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill temporarily halted part of the abortion law said to conflict with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires the approximately 39 hospitals in the state that receive federal Medicaid funding to provide stabilizing care to patients experiencing emergency medical conditions.  

Wednesday’s decision out of Idaho comes one day after a federal judge in Texas blocked enforcement of Biden’s emergency abortion guidance, ruling that hospitals in the state cannot facilitate emergency abortions or lean on a 1968 law as a defense against prosecution as a “trigger ban” allowing tougher penalties for the procedure is set to take effect Thursday.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland applauded the Idaho ruling and criticized the Texas ruling in a statement on Wednesday. 

“Today’s decision by the District Court for the District of Idaho ensures that women in the State of Idaho can obtain the emergency medical treatment to which they are entitled under federal law,” Garland said, adding that the department “will continue to use every tool at its disposal to defend the reproductive rights protected by federal law.” 

Meanwhile, the attorney general said the department “disagrees” with the Texas decision and said officials “are considering appropriate next steps.” 

In Judge Winmill’s 39-page decision, the Clinton-appointee wrote that the state’s law presents doctors deciding whether to perform an emergency abortion with the risk of “indictment, arrest, pretrial detention, loss of [their] medical license, a trial on felony charges, and at least two years in prison.” 

“Yet if the physician does not perform the abortion, the pregnant patient faces grave risks to her health,” he wrote, “such as severe sepsis requiring limb amputation, uncontrollable uterine hemorrhage requiring hysterectomy, kidney failure requiring lifelong dialysis, hypoxic brain injury, or even death.” 

And if the woman lives, Winmill said she may have to spend the rest of her life with “significant disabilities and chronic medical conditions … all because Idaho law prohibited the physician from performing the abortion.” 

While the state statute offers “a narrow affirmative defense to avoid conviction,” the judge described it as “cold comfort” for a doctor facing conviction who must convince a jury that performing the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant patient. 

Judge Winmill also referenced a series of questions he asked the state’s attorney during oral arguments on Monday, in which he quizzed state Deputy Attorney General Brian Church about how the law might play out in a real-life emergency hospital setting where a doctor must quickly decide whether to perform an abortion on a pregnant patient who has a 50-50 chance of survival without one. 

If the doctor cannot testify, Church argued earlier in the week, that it was her “good-faith medical belief” that an abortion was necessary to preserve or prevent the death of a pregnant patient, then the affirmative defense would be “inapplicable now,” meaning that the doctor could not raise such an argument in court if prosecuted. 

Judge Winmill wrote in Wednesday’s decision that he found a “clear answer” to his question is in the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which basically says “state law must yield to federal law when it’s impossible to comply with both.” 

“And that’s all this case is about,” he wrote. 

The court, he said, is not “grappling” with the larger, more profound question of the “bygone” constitutional right to an abortion, rather, it is addressing a “far more modest issue – whether Idaho’s criminal abortion statute conflicts with a small but important corner of federal legislation.” 

“It does,” he said. 

Earlier this month, the Idaho Supreme Court issued a 3-2 ruling denying abortion groups’ attempt to block the law while litigation plays out in the courts. 

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