Supreme Court begins oral arguments on emergency abortion case

Physicians for Human Rights supporting EMTALA in front of the Supreme Court.

In yet another recent Supreme Court case concerning access to reproductive healthcare, the state of Idaho has brought a challenge to EMTALA (the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act) in Moyle v. United States. EMTALA, initially passed by Congress in 1986, ensures that hospitals receiving federal funds through Medicare and Medicaid maintain a certain standard of emergency care. This law mandates that patients receive emergency care regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Under EMTALA, when patients present with an emergency medical condition, they must be stabilized or transferred to a facility that can provide appropriate treatment before being discharged.

The issue of abortion access arises as medical facilities question whether reproductive health services are covered under EMTALA. Following the devastating Dobbs decision that overturned the federally protected right to abortion, many healthcare providers are hesitating to offer abortion services due to fears of legal repercussions in states with restrictive abortion laws. EMTALA provides a legal framework for delivering emergency care in hospitals that receive federal funding, which includes most hospitals nationwide. Emergency abortions are considered essential for patient stabilization, leading to arguments that denying emergency abortion care violates EMTALA.

Regarding the ambiguity surrounding EMTALA and abortion procedures, President Biden’s administration has taken a clear stance. In July 2022, a memorandum was issued stating that if a physician deems abortion necessary to stabilize a pregnant patient with an emergency medical condition under EMTALA, the treatment must be provided. The memorandum asserts that state laws prohibiting abortion without exceptions for the pregnant person’s life or narrowly defining emergency medical conditions are preempted by EMTALA.

Despite Biden’s memorandum and the legal implications, states like Idaho are resisting. Following SCOTUS’s permission to enact their Stay in the Defense of Life Act, Idaho’s Attorney General Raúl R. Labrador argued that federal law does not preempt their Defense of Life Act, contending that both EMTALA and Idaho’s law aim to save lives. However, this overlooks the impact on women’s freedom to make choices about their bodies in emergencies.

If Idaho succeeds, it could have significant repercussions, especially in states with existing abortion bans where EMTALA’s standards are relied upon for emergency care. Already, states with strict bans are grappling with interpretations of EMTALA, leading to situations where the law cannot be fully upheld, forcing pregnant people to seek emergency abortion services elsewhere. Removal of the law would pose a grave threat to women in need of life-saving care.

Recently, SCOTUS also upheld Idaho’s bills banning gender-affirming care for youth and implementing one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans. Continued support for such cases empowers anti-abortion state legislatures, undermining federal protections and women’s rights. This case reflects ongoing struggles post-Dobbs and will shed light on SCOTUS’s priorities regarding reproductive rights and women’s lives.

Support eh ERA banner