By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) -A federal judge on Wednesday blocked Idaho from enforcing a ban on abortions when pregnant women require emergency care, a day after a judge in Texas ruled against President Joe Biden's administration on the same issue.
The conflicting rulings came in two of the first lawsuits over Biden's attempts to keep abortion legal after the conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.
Legal experts said the dueling rulings in Idaho and Texas could, if upheld on appeal, force the Supreme Court to wade back into the debate.
About half of U.S. states have or are expected to seek to ban or curtail abortions following Roe's reversal. Those states include Idaho and Texas, which like 11 others adopted "trigger" laws banning abortion upon such a decision.
Abortion is already illegal in Texas under a separate, nearly century-old abortion ban that took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. Idaho's trigger ban takes effect on Thursday, the same day as in Texas and Tennessee.
In Idaho, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice that the abortion ban taking effect Thursday conflicts with a federal law that ensures patients can receive emergency "stabilizing care."
Winmill, who was appointed to the court by former Democratic President Bill Clinton, issued a preliminary injunction blocking Idaho from enforcing its ban to the extent it conflicts with federal law, citing the threat to patients.
"One cannot imagine the anxiety and fear (a pregnant woman) will experience if her doctors feel hobbled by an Idaho law that does not allow them to provide the medical care necessary to preserve her health and life," Winmill wrote.
The Justice Department has said the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requires abortion care in emergency situations.
"Today's decision by the District Court for the District of Idaho ensures that women in the State of Idaho can obtain the emergency medical treatment to which they are entitled under federal law," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a written statement.
"The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool at its disposal to defend the reproductive rights protected by federal law," Garland said. The DOJ has said that it disagrees with the Texas ruling and is considering next legal steps.
U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix ruled in the Texas case that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services went too far by issuing guidance that the same federal law guaranteed abortion care.
Hendrix agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, that the guidance issued in July "discards the requirement to consider the welfare of unborn children when determining how to stabilize a pregnant woman."
Hendrix, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the federal statute was silent as to what a doctor should do when there is a conflict between the health of the mother and the unborn child and that the Texas law "fills that void."
Hendrix issued an injunction barring enforcement of the HHS guidance in Texas and against two groups of anti-abortion doctors who also challenged it, saying the Idaho case showed a risk the Biden administration might try to enforce it.
Hendrix declined to issue a nationwide injunction as Paxton wanted.
Appeals are expected in both cases and would be heard by separate appeals courts, one based in San Francisco with a reputation for leaning liberal and another in New Orleans known for conservative rulings.
Greer Donley, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and expert on abortion law, said that if the conflicting rulings were upheld the U.S. Supreme Court may feel pressured to intervene.
"Without a federal right abortion, this is the type of legal chaos that most people were predicting would be happening," she said.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Grant McCool and Christopher Cushing)