A federal judge on Wednesday blocked Idaho from enforcing an abortion ban when women with pregnancy complications require emergency care, a day after a judge in Texas ruled against President Joe Biden’s administration on the same issue.
The conflicting rulings came in two of the first lawsuits over the Democratic administration’s attempts to ease abortion access after the conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.
Legal experts said the two state rulings, if upheld on appeal, could force the Supreme Court to wade back into the debate.
About half of all U.S. states have or are expected to seek to ban or curtail abortions following Roe’s reversal. Those states include Idaho and Texas, which like 11 others adopted “trigger” laws banning abortion upon such a decision.
Abortion is already illegal in Texas under a separate, nearly century-old abortion ban that recently took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. Idaho’s trigger ban takes effect on Thursday, the same day as those in Texas and Tennessee.
In Idaho, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with the U.S. Justice Department that the abortion ban taking effect Thursday conflicts with a federal law that ensures patients can receive emergency “stabilizing care” at hospitals.
Threat to patients cited
Winmill, an appointee of former Democratic President Bill Clinton, issued a preliminary injunction blocking Idaho from enforcing its ban to the extent it conflicts with federal law, citing the threat to patients.
“One cannot imagine the anxiety and fear she will experience if her doctors feel hobbled by an Idaho law that does not allow them to provide the medical care necessary to preserve her health and life,” Winmill wrote. “From that vantage point, the public interest clearly favors the issuance of a preliminary injunction.”
The Justice Department has said the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requires abortion care in emergency situations.
Winmill’s decision came after a late-night Tuesday ruling in Texas by U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix holding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Biden went too far by issuing guidance holding the same federal law guaranteed abortion care.
Hendrix agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, that the guidance issued in July “discards the requirement to consider the welfare of unborn children when determining how to stabilize a pregnant woman.”
Hendrix, an appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump, said the federal statute was silent as to what a doctor should do when there is a conflict between the health of the mother and the unborn child and that Texas’s law “fills that void.”
He issued an injunction barring the federal government from enforcing HHS’s guidance in Texas and against two groups of anti-abortion doctors who also challenged it, saying the Idaho case showed a risk the Biden administration might try to enforce it.
Hendrix declined, though, to issue a nationwide injunction as Paxton wanted, saying the “circumstances counsel in favor of a tailored, specific injunction.”
Appeals are expected in both cases and would be heard by separate appeals courts, one based in San Francisco with a reputation for leaning liberal and another in New Orleans known for conservative rulings.
Greer Donley, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and expert on abortion law, said should those appeals courts uphold this week’s dueling rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court may feel pressured to intervene and clarify the law.
“Without a federal right to abortion, this is the type of legal chaos that most people were predicting would be happening,” she said.
Shannon Selden, a lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton who represents several medical associations supporting the Justice Department’s Idaho case, said “there’s a huge cloud over physicians’ ability to provide stabilizing care for patients who need it.”
“The Justice Department is trying lift that cloud through its Idaho action, and the Texas court has made that cloud darker,” she said.