Judge grants DOJ preliminary injunction in lawsuit against Idaho's near-total abortion ban

The law bans abortion in most cases.

August 25, 2022, 12:33 PM

A federal judge granted the Biden administration a preliminary injunction Wednesday in its lawsuit against a near-total ban on abortions in Idaho -- temporarily barring some enforcement of the new law.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state over the ban, which goes into effect on Thursday, arguing that it violates a federal law guaranteeing access to emergency medical care.

The Idaho abortion law would make it a felony to perform an abortion in all but extremely narrow circumstances. There are exceptions for cases of rape or incest that have been reported. To avoid criminal liability, a doctor must prove that the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman, though there is no defense for an abortion to protect the woman's health, according to the DOJ.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise granted a preliminary injunction, effective immediately, barring the state from enforcing the law "as applied to medical care required by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act" amid the court proceedings, his order stated.

The case at hand is "not about the bygone constitutional right to an abortion," he wrote. "This Court is not grappling with that larger, more profound question. Rather, the Court is called upon to address a far more modest issue -- whether Idaho's criminal abortion statute conflicts with a small but important corner of federal legislation. It does."

Given that the U.S. has shown it will "likely succeed on the merits," he continued, "the Court has determined it should preserve the status quo while the parties litigate this matter."

The state is prohibited from enforcing the law to the extent that it conflicts with Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act-mandated care, Winmill ordered.

The decision "ensures that women in the State of Idaho can obtain the emergency medical treatment to which they are entitled under federal law. This includes abortion when that is the necessary treatment," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool at its disposal to defend the reproductive rights protected by federal law."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the ruling "will prevent serious harm to women in Idaho."

In its complaint, filed on Aug. 2, the Justice Department claimed that the Idaho law violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which states that hospitals that receive Medicare funds are required to provide necessary treatment to women who arrive at their emergency departments while experiencing a medical emergency. That medical care could include providing an abortion, according to the DOJ.

The Justice Department is seeking a declaratory judgment that the Idaho law is preempted by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act in emergency situations, as well as an order permanently barring the law to the extent that it conflicts with the federal act.

PHOTO: A group of teenagers protest the Supreme Court's decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case, July 2, 2022, in Driggs, Idaho.
A group of teenagers protest the Supreme Court's decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case, July 2, 2022, in Driggs, Idaho.
Natalie Behring/Getty Images

The lawsuit marked the Biden administration's first legal challenge to a state abortion ban after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, ending the constitutional right to an abortion.

Prosecutors argued that the Idaho law would prevent doctors from performing medically necessary abortions, as required by federal law.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden called the lawsuit "politically motivated" and charged that the DOJ did not attempt to "engage Idaho in a meaningful dialogue on the issue" prior to filing its complaint.

A case involving the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act as it pertains to abortion care is also ongoing in Texas.

Last month, the state of Texas sued the Biden administration on its guidance to hospitals that doctors should perform an abortion if doing so would protect a woman's health. The complaint was filed days after Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra instructed hospitals to follow the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act when determining whether to provide an abortion in emergency cases "regardless of the restrictions in the state where you practice."

On Tuesday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the federal government from enforcing the guidance, saying the federal law is "silent as to abortion."

Attorneys for the state of Idaho drew attention to that case in a court filing on Wednesday, saying Idaho "has not yet had a full opportunity to consider how the Texas court's decision should be persuasive in aspects of this current lawsuit, or in the pending preliminary injunction motion."

Garland said the DOJ is considering "appropriate next steps" following the Texas court's decision.

Idaho's so-called trigger law would be even more restrictive than an abortion ban that went into effect in the state earlier this month. That law, modeled after a similar "heartbeat law" in Texas, bans abortion at about six weeks and also allows civil lawsuits against medical providers who perform the procedure.

Amid legal challenges from abortion providers, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld both abortion laws in a ruling issued on Aug. 12, allowing them to go into effect.

Another trigger law that would make it a felony for doctors to perform an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy went into effect on Aug. 19 in the state. That law, which has exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies, is also currently being challenged by abortion providers.

ABC News' Alexander Mallin contributed to this report.

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