The text of the relevant federal law – the Emergency Medical Care and Active Labor Act, or EMTALA for short – is not changing, a top health official told reporters on Monday. But the new guidance on the issue seeks to provide clarity and assurance to health care providers about whether they can treat serious pregnancy-related conditions, including ectopic pregnancy, hypertension and preeclampsia, under increasingly restrictive laws in some states.
“Today, we confirm without question that we expect providers to continue to offer these services, and that federal law prevents state bans on emergency abortions,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Under the law, no matter where you live, women have a right to emergency care — including abortion care.”
Specifically, the administration’s memo reminds hospitals and individual doctors that EMTALA violations carry stiff penalties — including fines and possible termination of participation in the Medicare program. It also points out that federal law protecting doctors’ ability to perform abortions in such circumstances takes precedence over any state ban and seeks to give doctors broad latitude to use their medical judgment about what constitutes an emergency.
States that ban abortion allow exceptions to protect the life of the mother, but many doctors believe the laws are too vague or narrow to allow doctors to use their best judgment, and they fear they could be forced to defend their care in court and possibly , face lengthy prison terms for terminating a pregnancy in the context of a health emergency.
Providers shouldn’t have to sit back and wait until their patients’ conditions worsen or become life-threatening before they can offer abortions, federal health officials stressed Monday, adding that doctors will be protected by law if a patient has a condition that could be serious. hurt but not kill them.
The new action is one of the promised ones included in the order Biden signed last week — may not be enough to stem mounting criticism from progressive and reproductive rights groups, who say the administration has not moved quickly or aggressively enough to protect abortion rights and has mostly focused on urging people to vote in the midterm elections.
However, many believe that strengthening the EMTALA guidelines could make a big difference.
“Most doctors are scared out of their minds now because threats they face are so serious and scary,” said Greer Donnelly, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who works on abortion rights. “But what the government can say is, you don’t just have the right to abort somebody who has an emergency, you have the responsibility. And even if you’re an anti-abortion doctor who doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t matter. The hospital has to give the patient someone else who is willing to do it.”
However, Donnelly stressed that the guidance will have little impact unless it is coupled with stronger federal enforcement. Although patients must file complaints that their right to emergency care has been violated, and application of the law outside of abortion is often patchy, the federal government can sue hospitals or individual doctors who do not comply.
Facing criticism from lawmakers and activists over their response to the fallout roe deerLast week, Biden again promised that the federal government would protect pregnant women in states that restrict abortion. strengthen privacy rights and promote access to medical abortion, although it remains unclear exactly how this will be done.
Sarah Overmole contributed to this report.