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U.S. Department of Justice sues Idaho over “trigger” abortion ban

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The nation’s top law enforcement office is taking the state of Idaho to court over one of its anti-abortion bills.

In a press conference Tuesday morning, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Idaho law conflicts with federal law establishing access to emergency health care.

“When a hospital determines that an abortion is the medical treatment necessary to stabilize a patient’s emergency medical condition, it is required by federal law to provide that treatment,” Garland said.

Reproductive health advocates say Idaho’s law – and similar ones in other states – are producing a chilling effect for women’s emergency care, because doctors will be less likely to provide care when they think doing so may invite criminal charges. And that chilling effect is where Garland contends the state law conflicts with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTLA).

“As outlined in our complaint, Idaho’s law would make it a criminal offense for doctors to provide the emergency medical treatment that federal law requires,” Garland said.

Garland noted that the Idaho law includes an exception to save a pregnant woman’s life, but no exceptions for cases in which there is a non-life-threatening medical emergency.

“It would subject doctors to arrest and criminal prosecution even if they perform an abortion to save a woman’s life,” Garland said. “And it would then place the burden on the doctors to prove they are not criminally liable.”

The Department of Justice seeks two things: that the portions of the “trigger” law that conflict with federal law be declared invalid, and that Idaho be barred from enforcing criminal penalties against doctors who perform abortions as protected under EMTLA.

Idaho Governor Brad Little appeared confident in his state’s chances to beat the lawsuit in court.

“Our nation’s highest court returned the issue of abortion to the states to regulate – end of story,” Little said in a statement. He also called the decision to sue Idaho federal overreach.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden called the lawsuit unnecessary, and said any conflicts with federal law could have been worked out through negotiation with the DOJ, instead of through the court system.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Wednesday morning on a separate lawsuit against Senate Bill 1309, a law approved earlier this year that introduces civil penalties against abortion providers. The suit was filed by Planned Parenthood and central Idaho obstetrician Caitlin Gustafson.

The justices will consider whether to continue a stay on 1309, which has been on hold since March, and whether to bundle the 1309 lawsuit with another suit Planned Parenthood filed that challenges the same “trigger” law that drew the Department of Justice’s scrutiny.

Oral arguments begin at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time at the Idaho Supreme Court building in Boise.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.