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Supreme Court Decision to Send Idaho Abortion Case Back to Lower Courts is a Reprieve but Leaves Patients and Clinicians at Risk: PHR

Citing PHR, Justice Jackson notes the decision is "not a victory for pregnant patients in Idaho. It is delay."

The Supreme Court’s decision to avoid ruling on the conflict between Idaho’s extreme ban on access to abortion and a federal law guaranteeing access to abortions in cases of emergency provides a reprieve to pregnant patients in Idaho but leaves pregnant patients experiencing grave health risks and emergency room clinicians facing a medical ethics crisis in other states with similar bans, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today.  

The Supreme Court reversed its January 5 decision to allow Idaho to enforce its ban on access to abortion in emergency rooms and sent the case back to the District Court that had earlier stayed Idaho’s ban as contravening the federal statute EMTALA (Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) in Moyle v. United States. For the time being, pregnant patients in Idaho who need abortion services in emergency situations will be able to access care legally while the case proceeds. However, the Supreme Court did not affirm that hospitals are required to offer emergency abortion services to patients who need them and the reprieve may be only temporary as the case returns to litigation. 

“The Supreme Court’s order earlier this year allowing Idaho’s abortion ban to go into effect caused a health and human rights crisis, as PHR documented. The Court’s actions then and today, to quote Justice Jackson, create a ‘completely unnecessary catastrophe,’” said Payal Shah, JD, who leads PHR’s reproductive justice work.  

“Ultimately, this case should have been decided in the interest of pregnant patients. The evidence PHR documented is clear: State bans that prohibit abortion in medical emergencies conflict with EMTALA and lead to devastating physical, mental, and financial harm to patients. Since January, the Idaho statute has significantly delayed necessary medical care for pregnant patients and has forced them to undergo dangerous, costly journeys for care that further threaten their health. For clinicians, practicing in such contexts is near impossible, leading to pregnant patients facing even greater barriers to accessing care as OB-GYNs leave the state,” said Shah.  

“Physicians for Human Rights made clear the grievous harms caused since the Supreme Court admittedly erroneously rescinded the stay on the Idaho law issued by the District Court.  We are relieved that at least for the time-being pregnant patients in Idaho will be able to get the proper medical care that they need,” said Gerson Smoger, JD, PhD, chair of PHR’s Board of Directors.  

“By failing to act to clarify EMTALA’s preemption over state abortion bans without health exceptions, SCOTUS is essentially leaving pregnant patients in other states with bans, including Texas where a similar case is pending, still facing the same suffering and harm that they inflicted on pregnant Idahoans and their clinicians,” said Shah.  

PHR filed an amicus brief in this case showing how Idaho’s abortion ban dangerously conflicts with U.S. government protections in EMTALA and leads to the denial of abortion care even in health emergencies. PHR’s amicus was based on a PHR fact-finding brief that documented accounts of physicians who could not properly treat pregnant patients in and from Idaho suffering emergency medical situations (such as PPROM and HELPP).  Supreme Court Justice Jackson cited PHR’s amicus brief in both oral arguments and in her opinion as evidence of the harms of Idaho’s abortion bans and its inconsistency with EMTALA.   

“We appreciate the clinicians and patients who shared evidence and spoke out. Without their courage, we may have seen an even worse decision from the Supreme Court today. The medical evidence we gathered was recognized by the Court as showing that EMTALA and Idaho’s ban are inconsistent, but in the face of continued assaults on reproductive freedom we must double down on our efforts. We will work in solidarity with the healthcare community as this case inevitably works its way back through the legal system and attacks on reproductive justice continue,” said Shah.  

Since the reversal of Roe v. Wade, PHR has mobilized its medical and legal networks and partners to investigate, document, and spotlight the impacts of state-level abortion bans. PHR has worked alongside local and national partners to research and highlight the consequences of abortion criminalization on health care in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Idaho.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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