Following a challenge by the Department of Justice, District Judge B. Lynn Winmill temporarily halted Idaho’s legislation prohibiting nearly all abortions on Wednesday regarding emergency care in hospitals. The government agency claimed the law contravened the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act.
As of Thursday, the prohibition on abortion will go into effect, but doctors who must make immediate life-or-death decisions are safe from prosecution under Winmill’s judgment.
The ruling states that if an abortion is required to prevent a pregnant patient’s health from being “in serious jeopardy” or risking serious impairment to bodily functions or mental health, then the state of Idaho and all of its officers, employees, and agents are forbidden from initiating any criminal prosecution against, attempting to suspend or revoke the professional license of, or seeking to impose any other form of liability on, any medical provider or hospital.
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According to the order, the injunction will remain in effect until a final decision is rendered.
B. Lynn Winmill, District Judge of the Idaho Courts (Courtesy of District of Idaho courts)
With no exemption for EMTALA-required care, “allowing the criminal abortion ban to take effect” would “inject tremendous uncertainty” into the care that is “required (and permitted) for pregnant patients who present in Medicare-funded emergency rooms with emergency medical conditions,” Winmill wrote.
A hearing was held in Boise between the Department of Justice and attorneys for the Idaho Attorney General’s office and the Idaho Legislature, and Winmill issued the written ruling two days later. At the beginning of August, the Department of Justice sued the state of Idaho over its abortion ban, claiming it was in violation of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). All patients admitted to the hospital with a medical emergency must be stabilized by the hospital’s medical staff in accordance with this law, as the hospital must do so in order to receive funds from the federal Medicare program. When hospitals break the federal EMTALA regulation, it might mean the end of one of their key sources of revenue: Medicare payments.
In Idaho, abortion is illegal under the state’s trigger law unless one of three exceptions applies: rape, incest, or life-threatening circumstances. If a doctor or other medical worker breaks the law, they face a felony charge and a possible jail term of two to five years. Abortion providers and anyone who aids in the procedure risk revoking their licenses for at least six months and maybe forever.
The Department of Justice argued in its complaint that Idaho’s trigger statute places healthcare practitioners in an impossible situation, where they face criminal prosecution under state and federal law.
“Idaho’s criminal abortion statute aims to reduce access to safe, legal abortion for medical purposes. Even in times of crisis, this is the case, which defeats the goal of EMTALA,” noted Winmill. Contrary to Congress’s intention, Idaho has chosen to apply harsh and comprehensive fines that reduce the overall availability of emergency abortion treatment.
Winmill said he had multiple issues about situations brought up by physicians and that he thought the federal statute and Idaho’s law seemed to be in “total contradiction” during Monday’s hearing, suggesting he was inclined to approve the Department of Justice’s motion to delay execution of the law.
States Newsroom reports that the decision runs counter to a ruling from a federal judge in Texas on Tuesday night, who said that HHS guidance on the law “goes well beyond” the text of the federal law, which he wrote “protects both mothers and unborn children, is silent as to abortion, and preempts state law only when the two directly conflict.” That ruling is binding on the state of Texas, the Christian Medical and Dental Associations and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.