On January 2, 2024, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the Texas District Court’s ruling allowing Texas to ban emergency abortions in spite of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Following a preliminary injunction blocking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from enforcing the memorandum issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on July 11, 2022, the Fifth Circuit found that the Guidance illegally used EMTALA to force emergency room doctors to illegally perform abortions when faced with the decision regarding whether an abortion is medically necessary to stabilize a patient where abortion is banned. More concisely stated, the court held that EMTALA prevents healthcare providers from refusing to treat pregnant patients and unborn children in emergencies—it does not require the provider to perform an abortion. 

Healthcare providers should not risk patient safety in emergency situations because they fear action or inaction is illegal. Educating the medical staff on the dichotomy in how federal and state laws apply in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will help ensure the safety of the putative pregnant woman from an adverse outcome by allowing the provider to confidently provide the appropriate medically stabilizing treatment without fear of prosecution. Ultimately, understanding the legal scheme will lead to better quality of care.

Learn more about this topic in this author’s article “Navigating the Uncertainty of State Abortion Laws: Suggestions for Hospitals Amid the Rise of Federal Investigations,” recently published by the American Health Law Association (AHLA).