The Biden administration filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Idaho for restricting access to abortion to patients who need lifesaving medical treatment, the first such Justice Department challenge since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer.
Idaho’s near-total abortion ban, which will take effect later this month, would make it nearly impossible, according to the Justice Department, for patients who need an abortion in emergency medical situations, such as an ectopic pregnancy or other complications, from receiving potentially lifesaving treatment.
“In the days since the Dobbs decision, there have been widespread reports of delays or denials to pregnant women experiencing medical emergencies,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news conference Tuesday. “We will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that pregnant women get the medical care that they are entitled to.”
The trigger law, which was passed in 2020, would make providing abortions a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The ban has exceptions for cases of rape or incest if reported to law enforcement or to prevent the death of the pregnant person.
The Justice Department is suing under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which states that hospitals receiving Medicare funds “must provide medical treatment necessary to stabilize that condition before transferring or discharging the patient,” according to Tuesday’s lawsuit.
“The Idaho law would make it a criminal offense for doctors to comply with EMTALA’s requirement to provide stabilizing treatment, even where a doctor determines that abortion is the medical treatment necessary to prevent a patient from suffering severe health risks or even death,” DOJ said in its lawsuit.
In a statement, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden accused the Justice Department of filing “a politically motivated lawsuit.”
DOJ last month created a task force aimed at protecting abortion fights following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs that overturned Roe v. Wade and struck down the federal right to abortion.
Under the Idaho law, which is set to take effect on August 25, abortion providers could be subject to arrest and prosecution if a prosecutor can show that an abortion has been performed, with the burden placed on providers to prove an “affirmative defense” at trial, according to the DOJ.
The law “places medical professionals in an impossible situation, they must either withhold stabilizing treatment required by EMTALA or risk felony prosecution and license revocation. In so doing, the law will chill providers’ willingness to perform abortions in emergency situations,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who’s the head of the task force, said Tuesday.
Garland said that the lawsuit has “nothing to do with going around” the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs.
“The Supreme Court said that each state can make its own decisions with respect to abortion, but so too can the federal government,” he told reporters Tuesday. “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.”
Abortion providers and advocates in Idaho have also challenged the state’s trigger law, arguing that the law is so vague that providers are unsure whether they can provide care for patients in cases such as miscarriages. The state Supreme Court is set to hear the case on Wednesday.
This story has been updated with additional details and reaction.