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As emergency airlifts for pregnant patients increases in Idaho, U.S. Supreme Court abortion case starts

U.S. Supreme Court

As the U.S. Supreme Court is set to weigh in on whether Idaho’s abortion bans conflict with federal law, Idaho physicians seek clarity on what the laws mean for their practice.

Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA, hospitals that receive Medicare funds are required to stabilize patients in an emergency, which the U.S. government says can include abortion care.

Idaho law allows physicians to terminate pregnancies only to save the life of the mother, but not to preserve her health. Chief Physician of St. Luke’s Medical Center Dr. Jim Souza, said that means doctors are often left second-guessing when to intervene.

“Is she sick enough? Is she bleeding enough? Is she septic enough for me to do this abortion and not risk going to jail and losing my license? When the guessing game gets too uncomfortable, we transfer the patients out at a very high cost to another state where the doctors are allowed to practice medicine,” he said.

In 2023, an injunction blocked Idaho’s law from applying to emergency medical cases. During that time, St Luke’s hospitals airlifted one pregnant patient out of state for emergency abortion care. In the three months since the injunction was lifted in January, Souza said that number rose to six.

“And if we annualize that, we can anticipate up to 20 patients needing out of state care this year alone,” he added.

Souza also said sending patients away is a wasteful use of hospital resources and it's dangerous to patients.

“Putting somebody in a whirlybird and flying them to another state creates an obvious delay in care that puts the patient's health and life at risk,” Souza said.

In a brief, lawyers defending Idaho say EMTALA is meant to prevent hospitals from “dumping” patients they do not want to treat, to ensure everyone gets equal care.

“The administration says EMTALA requires hospital emergency department doctors to perform abortions whenever those doctors subjectively believe an abortion is “stabilizing care.”,” the brief reads. “But EMTALA only requires hospitals to offer treatments that are “available.” In Idaho, the abortions for which the administration vies are not “available” to any patient.”

Defendants argue the Federal Act doesn’t require hospital emergency rooms to become “abortion enclaves in violation of state law.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case starting Wednesday, April 24.

I joined Boise State Public Radio in 2022 as the Canyon County reporter through Report for America, to report on the growing Latino community in Idaho. I am very invested in listening to people’s different perspectives and I am very grateful to those who are willing to share their stories with me. It’s a privilege and I do not take it for granted.

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