A 5th Circuit federal appeals court on Tuesday, January 2, 2024, blew another hole into the abortion controversy by ruling that President Joe Biden cannot use a 1986 health care law to force emergency room doctors in Texas to conduct life-saving abortions if it violates state law.
Texas authorities believe such action would violate the state’s ban on abortions in 2024.
That’s why Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Biden’s DOJ Administration and so far he’s winning. This ruling in light of the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision in June 2022, raises questions regarding the provision of certain medical procedures.
Before the 5th Circuit’s critical decision was handed down the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had taken a stance by issuing guidance to hospitals, reiterating their responsibility to offer stabilizing care through the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which encompasses medically necessary abortions.
“When a state law prohibits abortion and does not include an exception for the life of the pregnant person – or draws the exception more narrowly than EMTALA’s emergency medical condition definition – that state law is preempted,” the guidance said.
After the overturn of Roe v. Wade, President Joe Biden issued guidance to federally funded hospitals, reminding them of their obligation to provide stabilizing health care to anyone who shows up at the emergency room, even if that care requires performing an abortion.
The Biden administration said this was not a new policy, but merely reiterating existing regulations under the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).
Texas challenged the guidance, saying it was an improperly implemented overreach that creates a “nationwide mandate that every hospital and emergency-room physician perform abortions.”
The Texas Supreme Court last month denied a request for an emergency court order allowing Kate Cox, a pregnant woman who learned her fetus had a fatal diagnosis, to have an abortion in the state. Cox ended up leaving the state to get the procedure, an NBC News report stated.
Never-Ending Legal Battles
The state of Texas has been embroiled in ongoing legal battles against abortion rights groups and the federal government concerning its abortion ban, a practice drawing nationwide criticism.
Following the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits all abortions in the state, except in cases where the life of the pregnant patient is at risk this restriction has led to significant challenges for doctors and patients dealing with medically complex pregnancies, as the medical exception has proven difficult to implement.
Facing the prospect of severe legal consequences, including imprisonment and revocation of their licenses, physicians have reportedly been hesitant to provide abortion care, resulting in delays or denials of the procedure.
Will Abortions Be Performed Against Doctor’s Will?
Texas found itself entangled in a legal battle concerning its abortion ban, as it faces a lawsuit indicating that the ban imposes a nationwide obligation on hospitals and emergency-room physicians to carry out abortions against their own will.
To demonstrate a united front, various anti-abortion medical associations have also joined in the legal proceedings.
During a hearing this past November, a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice stressed that while there may not be an explicit violation of Texas law concerning medically necessary abortions, the guidance provided was intended to guarantee their accessibility as mandated by the statute.
The situation in Texas underscores the conflict between the stringent abortion ban and the professional responsibilities of doctors when confronted with pregnancies. As advocates from both sides present their arguments, the ongoing legal battle highlights the intricacies surrounding reproductive healthcare in the state.
“Individuals [are] presenting to emergency rooms, suffering from these emergency medical conditions,” McKaye Neumeister said. “Right now, HHS can’t ensure that the hospitals are following their obligations in offering the care that’s required.”
In August 2022, a federal district judge in Lubbock agreed with Texas, saying this guidance amounted to a new interpretation of EMTALA and granted a temporary injunction that was later extended. The 5th Circuit heard arguments in November, and the judges seemed prepared to uphold the injunction, Texas Tribune reported.
Judge Leslie Southwick said there were several “extraordinary things, it seems to me, about this guidance,” and said it seemed HHS was trying to use EMTALA to expand abortion access in Texas to include “broader categories of things, mental health or whatever else HHS would say an abortion is required for.”
Tuesday’s ruling, authored by Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt, said the court “decline[d] to expand the scope of EMTALA.”
“We agree with the district court that EMTALA does not provide an unqualified right for the pregnant mother to abort her child,” Englehardt wrote. “EMTALA does not mandate medical treatments, let alone abortion care, nor does it preempt Texas law.”
Legal Affairs Reporter C. Walker can be reached at [email protected]