The text of the federal law under consideration – the Emergency Medical Services and Active Labor Act, or EMTALA for short – is not changing, a senior health official told reporters on Monday. But the new guidance on it aims to provide health care providers with clarity and reassurance about whether they can treat serious pregnancy-related conditions, including ectopic pregnancy, hypertension and preeclampsia, under increasingly restrictive laws in some states.
“Today we unequivocally confirm that we expect providers to continue to offer these services and that federal law lifts the state’s ban on abortion when needed for emergency care,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. “By law, no matter where you live, women have the right to emergency care, including abortion.”
Notably, the administration’s memo reminds hospitals and individual physicians that EMTALA violations carry severe penalties, including fines and possibly disenrollment from Medicare. It also emphasizes that federal law protects doctors’ ability to perform abortions in such circumstances, transcends any state ban, and seeks to give doctors broad discretion in exercising their medical judgment on what constitutes an emergency.
States that ban abortion allow exceptions to protect the life of the mother, but many doctors feel the laws are too vague or narrow to allow doctors to act on their own, and they fear they may be forced to defend their treatment in court and possibly face with lengthy prison sentences for terminating a pregnancy in the context of a health emergency.
Medical professionals should not sit around waiting for their patients’ condition to worsen or become life-threatening to suggest an abortion, federal health officials stressed Monday, adding that doctors will be protected by law if a patient has a condition that could be seriously damaging, but don’t kill them.
New action – one of the promised things included in the decree Biden signed last week may not be enough to stop growing criticism from progressives and reproductive rights groups that the administration has not acted quickly or aggressively enough to protect abortion rights and has mainly focused on calling people to vote in the midterms.
However, many believe that stronger EMTALA leadership could make a real difference.
“Most doctors are now scared to death because the threats they face so cruel and scary,” said Greer Donnelly, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who works on abortion rights. “But the government can say: you don’t just have the right to abort someone who is in an emergency, you have an obligation to do so. And even if you are a doctor against abortion and do not want to do it, it does not matter. The hospital should provide the patient with someone else who is willing to do this.”
However, Donnelly emphasized that this leadership would have little impact unless it was accompanied by tighter federal oversight. Although it is the patients’ responsibility to file complaints about violations of their right to emergency care, and enforcement of the law outside the context of abortion is often unclear, the federal government can bring lawsuits against hospitals or individual doctors who do not comply.
Facing criticism from lawmakers and activists over their response to the fall CaviarBiden pledged again last week that the federal government would protect pregnant women in states that ban abortion. strengthen the right to privacy and promote access to medical abortion, although it remains unclear exactly how this will be done.
Sara Overmole contributed to this report.