Supreme Court allows emergency abortions in Idaho

People in white jackets hold signs
Healthcare workers protested outside the court during hearings [Getty Images]

The Supreme Court has dismissed an abortion case from Idaho, a temporary win for abortion rights supporters that will allow women to receive emergency abortions despite the state's near-total ban.

However, the justices did not address the merits of the case, which focused on a federal law requiring hospitals to provide stabilising treatment to any patient who arrives with an "emergency medical condition".

The state of Idaho argued that law cannot supersede its abortion ban, which has an exception for the life - but not the health - of the mother.

The Biden administration disagreed, and sued.

The short, unsigned opinion returns the case to a lower court.

It closely resembled a document that appeared on the court's website - then was swiftly removed - the day before, an apparent leak first reported by Bloomberg.

In a 6-3 vote, three conservative justices sided with all three liberal justices to dismiss the case, writing it had been "improvidently granted".

The decision will - for now - offer protection from prosecution for doctors who determine an abortion is the best treatment for a patient in jeopardy in states.

But the court's side-step from the case's substance means the door remains open to further challenges to Emtala.

In a part assent, part dissent, the court's newest member, liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson criticised the court for the dismissal, saying it had "shirked its duty to resolve a pressing legal issue".

"The conflict between state and federal law still exists - in real life", she said, referring to Idaho's near-total abortion ban. "There is simply no good reason not to resolve this conflict now."

Justice Jackson's rebuttal was echoed by some leading abortion rights activists, who said the court had left women vulnerable.

“We are relieved for the moment, but hardly celebrating. The Court kicked the can down the road," said Nancy Northup, president of the pro-choice advocacy group the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Women with dire pregnancy complications and the hospital staff who care for them need clarity right now."

In Idaho, abortion is outlawed throughout pregnancy except in cases of rape, incest, some cases of nonviable pregnancies and when "it is necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman".

Doctors who violate the law risk prison time, steep fines and the loss of their medical license.

In court documents, a group of 678 Idaho doctors said the ban already has harmed women denied care while suffering from serious pregnancy complications.

But anti-abortion activists have countered that doctors have wilfully misinterpreted the law, which allows for life-threatening cases.

The Idaho Hospital Association said it applauded the decision as a "significant step toward ensuring that hospitals and physicians can offer critical care without government interference".

It added, however, that the state's abortion law "still needs added clarity to protect the health and well-being of Idaho women".

Heartbeat International, a global anti-abortion network, said in a statement the Supreme Court's ruling would leave states "effectively powerless to protect mothers and their unborn children from elective abortion".

Thursday's decision comes two years after the court overturned Roe v Wade and rescinded the nationwide guarantee to an abortion. Since then, a patchwork of abortion laws has emerged as more conservative states, like Idaho, restrict access to the procedure.

This is the second abortion opinion from the highest court in the country this month.

It also has rejected an effort to restrict access to the abortion pill mifepristone. In that case, the court said the plaintiffs did not have the legal right to sue, again avoiding the merits of the case and allowing for future challenges.