The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told healthcare providers they must be prepared to offer and provide an abortion for mothers whose lives are at risk. Such procedures are protected under federal law regardless of bans enacted at the state level. Moreover, this guidance is not a new policy; it reminds doctors and providers of their existing legal obligations.
On Monday, the agency cited the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) federal law when giving this directive. The department stated that under the 1986 Act:
If a physician believes that a pregnant patient presenting at an emergency department is experiencing an emergency medical condition as defined by EMTALA and that abortion is the stabilizing treatment necessary to resolve that condition, the physician must provide that treatment. When 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.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra’s letter to health care providers stressed that physicians or other qualified medical personnel needed to remember it is their professional and legal duty to provide patients with proper medical screening examination and stabilizing treatment without considering state laws or mandates that apply to specific procedures, such as abortion.
Emergency medical conditions “may include but are not limited to ectopic pregnancy, complications of pregnancy loss, or emergent hypertensive disorders, such as preeclampsia with severe features,” the letter further explains.
The EMTALA supersedes all state laws and mandates that prohibit abortion and do not provide a broad exemption in cases of a medical emergency.
Sec. Becerra’s letter reminded physicians that this federal law would be enforced.
The HHS announcement comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s executive order that directs government health departments to increase access to mifepristone and misoprostol, the drugs prescribed for medication abortion. It also ensures women access emergency medical care, family planning services, and contraception. In addition, Biden’s order mentioned protecting doctors and women who must travel to obtain an abortion and mobile abortion clinics at state borders.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Reuters: U.S. health dept says doctors must offer abortion if mother’s life is at risk; by Nandita Bose and Mrinalika Roy
CBS News: Biden administration says doctors must offer abortion if mother’s life is at risk
CMS: Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTALA)