SCOTUS Allows Emergency Abortions in Idaho

The decision reverses the Court's previous stay of a lower court decision blocking part of the law.


The Supreme Court will allow emergency abortions in Idaho, according to an opinion released Thursday, one day after it was accidentally briefly posted to the Court's website.

The Court ruled 6–3 to lift a stay it had placed in January on a lower court ruling allowing emergency abortions to go forward in Idaho while a lawsuit over the state's controversial abortion law went forward. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

After the Supreme Court struck down the national right to abortion in 2022, Idaho enacted one of the nation's strictest abortion bans. Not only does the state prohibit abortion from conception, but it also prohibits abortions required to protect a pregnant woman's physical health. An abortion is only allowed when it is "necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman."

The Justice Department quickly sued Idaho, arguing that the state's abortion ban violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), a federal law that requires many hospitals to provide stabilizing care to patients who show up to emergency rooms seeking help.

"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," the suit states. "Beyond care necessary to prevent death, the law provides no defense whatsoever when the health of the pregnant patient is at stake. And, even in dire situations that might qualify for the Idaho law's limited 'necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman' affirmative defense, some providers could withhold care based on a well-founded fear of criminal prosecution."

An Idaho federal district court judge placed a preliminary injunction on part of Idaho's law in August 2022. "It's not about the bygone constitutional right to an abortion," Judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote. "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."

Idaho appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed the block in January, allowing the law to be enforced while the legal battle continued.

"The on-the-ground impact was immediate," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a concurring opinion on Thursday. "To ensure appropriate medical care, the State's largest provider of emergency services had to airlift pregnant women out of Idaho roughly every other week, compared to once in all of the prior year (when the injunction was in effect)."

With Thursday's decision, the Supreme Court has dismissed Idaho's appeals, allowing doctors to provide health-preserving abortions in the state while the case continues.

"With this Court's writ of certiorari dismissed, the lower courts can proceed with this litigation in the regular course. And with this Court's stay dissolved, the District Court's preliminary injunction will again take effect," wrote Kagan. "That will prevent Idaho from enforcing its abortion ban when the termination of a pregnancy is needed to prevent serious harms to a woman's health."