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Idaho faces state and federal lawsuits over abortion law

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yesterday, for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the Biden administration filed a lawsuit against a state over its abortion ban. This was in Idaho. Separately, Idaho's Supreme Court heard arguments today against the ban - arguments that were filed by abortion rights advocates earlier this year.

Here to explain all these legal actions is James Dawson with Boise State Public Radio. Welcome.

JAMES DAWSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so Idaho has multiple laws restricting abortion - right? - some of the strictest in the country. So which law exactly is the Justice Department challenging here?

DAWSON: Right. So Idaho legislators passed this law right at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, kind of anticipating that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, which it did in June. And it would ban nearly all abortions except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened. So Planned Parenthood sued to block the law just a few days after that high court decision as part of a blitz of legal action across the country. And it's pretty pressing here because the clock is ticking in Idaho. That law is set to take effect on August 25.

CHANG: OK. And explain the Justice Department's argument as to why this law has to be struck down.

DAWSON: Well, Attorney General Merrick Garland says the Idaho ban conflicts with a federal law that requires hospitals receiving Medicare dollars to treat patients with significant health issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: If a patient comes into the emergency room with a medical emergency jeopardizing the patient's life or health, the hospital must provide the treatment necessary to stabilize that patient.

DAWSON: And he says that includes treatments like abortions for fetal complications.

CHANG: Right. OK, so the Justice Department files that lawsuit in federal court. Meanwhile, today, Idaho's state Supreme Court heard arguments against this same law, right? Is that correct?

DAWSON: Yep, that is. So Planned Parenthood and a physician in the case argued it should be struck down on three grounds - No. 1, that there's a right to privacy in the state constitution to allow people to make their own medical decisions; No. 2, that the law discriminates based on someone's sex; and then the third is that the law is too vague. And specifically, they say lawmakers here didn't define at what point the life of the mother is threatened, not to mention that the exceptions for rape and incest require filing a police report and then giving a copy of that to your doctor. But those reports aren't available until an investigation is closed, which could take months or years.

CHANG: Exactly. OK, and did the hearing today in state Supreme Court tell us anything about how the state of Idaho plans to defend its abortion ban?

DAWSON: Yeah. Idaho's Republican governor and attorney general rejected all of the arguments Planned Parenthood and the other plaintiff made immediately after they filed suit. They say that the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken and states can regulate abortions as they see fit. And they want the Idaho Supreme Court to completely dismiss the lawsuit against both the overall ban and another law similar to one first enacted in Texas.

CHANG: Right. That's a law that allows people to report someone who gets an abortion, and then they sue - they can sue that person in civil court.

DAWSON: Yeah. And Idaho's law would allow anyone related to a person getting an abortion to sue the doctor who performs it for a minimum of $20,000. It aims to block most abortions after six weeks, but that law is currently blocked until the state Supreme Court rules otherwise.

CHANG: So do we have any idea when we might get rulings, either from the state Supreme Court in Idaho or in this federal lawsuit?

DAWSON: Yeah, not really. I mean, Attorney General Merrick Garland is asking the judge to permanently block the strictest ban, and the federal court hasn't said anything in response to that suit filed yesterday. And as for Idaho Supreme Court, the justices can take as much time as they want, but I've seen them rule in a few weeks in, you know, expedited cases like this.

CHANG: That is James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio. Thank you, James.

DAWSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

James Dawson
James Dawson joined Boise State Public Radio as the organization's News Director in 2017. He oversees the station's award-winning news department. Most recently, he covered state politics and government for Delaware Public Media since the station first began broadcasting in 2012 as the country's newest NPR affiliate. Those reports spanned two governors, three sessions of the Delaware General Assembly, and three consequential elections. His work has been featured on All Things Considered and NPR's newscast division. An Idaho native from north of the time zone bridge, James previously served as the public affairs reporter and interim news director for the commercial radio network Inland Northwest Broadcasting. His reporting experience included state and local government, arts and culture, crime, and agriculture. He's a proud University of Idaho graduate with a bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. When he's not in the office, you can find James fly fishing, buffing up on his photography or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.
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