SCOTUS Allows One of America’s Strictest Abortion Bans to Take Effect—For Now

Idaho’s abortion law has sparked confusion and fear among doctors and patients.

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Washington, D.C, surrounded by trees

Graeme Sloan/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Idaho has among the strictest abortion bans in the country. It’s so strict, in fact, that in 2022, the Biden administration sued the state, arguing that it violates a federal law regulating medical emergencies. The legal battle went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which said on Friday that Idaho’s law could go into effect—at least until the court reviews the case in April.

In Idaho, it’s illegal to perform an abortion—punishable by up to five years in prison—except when “necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman.” But doctors have faced confusion over when, if ever, they can step in to perform emergency abortions: What if, as US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar poses, a patient’s condition isn’t life-threatening, but could become so? How long are doctors supposed to watch their patients’ conditions deteriorate before stepping in?

“Doctors in Idaho are afraid,” Julie Lyons, a family physician who sued the state over the law, told the Idaho Capital Sun in December. “We are afraid to provide simple obstetric care because of the fear that what we do with our patient could lead to prosecution.” Similarly, an Idaho OB/GYN told the Washington Post following the court’s decision on Friday, “I could take care of a patient in [a life-threatening] scenario tomorrow—and now I have to wait for months to figure out what I can do. It just makes me question what I am doing in this state anymore.”

It’s not just Idaho. As my colleague Madison Pauly wrote in July 2022:

The ambiguity in Wisconsin’s state abortion ban, for instance, has left doctors like Abigail Cutler, an OBGYN in Wisconsin, in an impossible bind. Wisconsin’s law, written in 1849, allows abortions to “save the life of the mother.”

“Where’s that line?” Cutler asks. “How close does a patient need to be? On the brink of death for me to step in and intervene? What if I wait too long and she dies in front of me? Or what if in the eyes of some prosecutor who’s not a doctor, not at the bedside, not staring at the patient bleeding or infected in front of them—to them, what if I intervene too soon, and I’m charged and risk going to prison?” 

Wisconsin’s liberal-leaning Supreme Court could soon hear arguments over that state’s law. The Idaho case has been working its way through the federal courts since August 2022, when the Biden administration alleged Idaho was violating the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which requires hospitals to treat and stabilize patients in medical emergencies. According to the Biden administration, that includes emergency abortion care. As my former colleague Abigail Weinberg noted at the time, the 2022 lawsuit was the administration’s first legal attempt to rein in a state’s abortion restrictions following the Supreme Court’s decision to end the right to abortion in the US.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade has enabled Republican elected officials to pursue dangerous abortion bans like this one that continue to jeopardize women’s health, force them to travel out of state for care, and make it harder for doctors to provide care, including in an emergency,” the White House said in a statement on Friday. “These bans are also forcing doctors to leave Idaho and other states because of laws that interfere with their ability to care for their patients. This should never happen in America.”

Now, the question of whether federal law requires abortion to be truly available in emergency cases is in the hands of the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court—the same justices, I needn’t remind you, who overturned Roe nearly two years ago. In the meantime, the law in Idaho and elsewhere couldn’t be more murky.

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate