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DOJ's reproductive rights group is watching for state changes that violate federal law

The Department of Justice building is seen in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 2022.
Stefani Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
The Department of Justice building is seen in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 2022.

A Justice Department task force designed to protect reproductive rights after the Supreme Court overruled a landmark abortion precedent is meeting daily to monitor changes in state law and advise federal agencies.

In its latest action, DOJ this week pledged to defend doctors, nurses and other workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs if they're sued or prosecuted for their role in facilitating abortions for patients whose life or health is in danger.

"The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution bars state officials from penalizing VA employees for performing their federal functions, whether through criminal prosecution, license revocation proceedings, or civil litigation," according to a new memo from the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who's leading the effort, told NPR "we aren't going to hesitate to act when we see violations of federal law."

The Justice Department sued the state of Idaho last month over that state's near total abortion ban. At issue in that case is a federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which requires hospitals that participate in Medicare to evaluate and stabilize patients with emergency medical conditions.

"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," Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters in August of the Idaho state law.

DOJ is also defending the federal government, which has been sued by the Republican attorney general in Texas over its guidance to E.R. doctors and hospitals that take funding from Medicare.

Federal prosecutors said they've secured recent guilty pleas from people who issued violent threats or destroyed property at clinics that perform abortions. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 bars violent, threatening acts that are intended to interfere with peoples' right to seek or provide reproductive health services.

"There is much work to do every day," Gupta said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.