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Texas fights Biden over saving the life of mothers during crisis pregnancies

Abortion clinic in New Mexico
David Martin Davies
Abortion clinic in New Mexico

After multiple high-profile cases of women in Texas having to flee the state during crisis pregnancies- saving the life of the mother has become the focus of the state’s abortion battle.

Texas has gone to court to fight federal efforts that would save the life of a mother if an emergency abortion is medically necessary.

At the heart of the legal battle is a 1986 law that was signed by Ronald Reagan, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act or EMTALA. It is federal law that requires health providers to perform life saving care in emergency situations.

“You have to have an emergency medical condition. You are screened, and if the emergency department personnel decide that you have an emergency medical condition, they must stabilize you,” said Sara Rosenbaum,a professor of health policy at the George Washington University.

Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the banning of abortion in a number of states like Texas, the Biden administration has issued guidance that states EMTALA can require abortions when the mother is in a dire situation and an abortion is necessary to stabilize a patient, even in states like Texas where abortion is illegal.

“We are talking about emergency department care. And this assertion on the part of Texas and other states that doing anything to protect health emergencies somehow opens the door to abortion on demand in emergency departments is evidence of a gross, gross misunderstanding of EMTALA,” said Rosenbaum.

In Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s statement issued when he sued the Biden Administration over EMTALA, he said “The Biden Administration seeks to transform every emergency room in the country into a walk-in abortion clinic. EMTALA does not authorize and has never been thought to authorize the federal government to require emergency healthcare providers to perform abortions.”

Rosenbaum disagrees saying “It's a statement made out of complete ignorance over the meaning of EMTALA. And obviously it's a statement made in complete antipathy to women facing very serious health emergencies.”

She adds that claims that Biden wants to force doctors opposed to abortion to perform abortions is also wrong because there already is a conscience exemption in EMTALA.

“So the notion that these doctors' rights are being violated is also completely wrong,” she said.

But Texas found success with its anti-EMTALA arguments before a federal judge. And earlier this month the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the administration cannot use EMTALA to require hospitals in Texas to provide abortions for women whose lives are at risk due to pregnancy. The ruling found that “EMTALA does not mandate medical treatments, let alone abortion care, nor does it preempt Texas law.”

This ruling currently prevents the federal government from enforcing its interpretation of EMTALA in Texas.

But this week the Biden Administration announced new actions to strengthen EMTALA by educating the public about their rights to emergency medical care including emergency abortions.

But Katie Keith, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the White House Gender Policy Council said that in Texas it’s difficult because this is caught up in the courts.

“This administration has long taken the position that emergency care under that law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act can include abortion care in some circumstances. And we're defending that interpretation. We've defended that interpretation in Texas, and we are defending it at the Supreme Court right now in a separate case out of Idaho,” said Keith.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the Idaho EMTALA abortion case in April.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi