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Justice Department files a lawsuit against Idaho's restrictive abortion law

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Justice Department has issued its first legal challenge over abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Federal authorities are suing Idaho over a near-total abortion ban. At the White House, President Biden said it's a necessary step to address what he called a health care crisis.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Justice Department stepped in to make sure that this extreme state law criminalizing abortion does not put women's health and lives at risk.

FADEL: As NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports, more action from the federal government is on the way.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Biden administration's case against Idaho is the first for a reason. Attorney General Merrick Garland says the Idaho legislation, set to take effect later this month, clashes with federal law, which should prevail under the supremacy clause of the Constitution.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Federal law invalidates state laws that are in direct contradiction. This has really nothing to do with anything that the Supreme Court said and certainly nothing to do with going around the Supreme Court.

JOHNSON: The DOJ case is pretty simple. It argues the state is flouting a federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and placing emergency room doctors and other medical professionals in criminal jeopardy if they perform abortions to help stabilize the health of pregnant women.

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GARLAND: It would subject doctors to arrest and criminal prosecution, and it would then place the burden on the doctors to prove that they are not criminally liable.

JOHNSON: That puts doctors in an impossible situation when they face patients who suffer from ectopic pregnancy or complications from a miscarriage, says Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. Gupta leads a new task force designed to protect reproductive rights.

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VANITA GUPTA: We know that these are frightening and uncertain times for pregnant women and their providers, and the Justice Department, through the work of its task force, is committed to doing everything we can to ensure continued lawful access to reproductive services.

JOHNSON: In a written statement, Idaho's Republican Governor Brad Little said he'd vigorously defend the state in the face of what he described as federal meddling. But the Justice Department is not deterred. Federal authorities say they're looking at restrictions in other states with an eye toward future challenges. Outside scholars say that, like the Idaho case, the federal law could be a, quote, "sword to poke holes in state abortion bans." DOJ is also defending the federal government, which has been sued by the Republican attorney general in Texas over its guidance to ER doctors and hospitals that take funding from Medicare. Gupta says the task force will monitor state efforts to prohibit abortion medication and limits on people's travel to other states to get health care.

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GUPTA: And as the legal landscape continues to grow more complex, we know that access to legal assistance will be critical for women and providers all over the country.

JOHNSON: She says the Justice Department will help support those efforts. The Biden administration cast the fallout from the Supreme Court's abortion ruling as a matter of gender and racial justice. White House counsel Stuart Delery compared a gathering of lawyers focused on reproductive rights last week to the mobilization of advocates during the civil rights movement nearly 60 years ago.

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STUART DELERY: Today, as in 1963, the collective talent and training of lawyers across the country can make a difference.

JOHNSON: He says lawyers are uniquely positioned to take a stand for justice and protect patients and providers.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.