- A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Biden administration from enforcing guidance which says that providers who perform abortions in emergency situations are protected under federal law, regardless of any state bans.
- The HHS issued the guidance in July following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion solidified in Roe v. Wade. Texas officials quickly filed a lawsuit challenging the guidance.
- On Tuesday, Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix agreed with Texas’ attorney general that the guidance was unauthorized and beyond the scope of the law. Hendrix barred the HHS from enforcing it in Texas.
The Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA, was designed to prevent hospitals from turning away patients based on their ability to pay. But it has become a flashpoint in the roiling fight over abortion access across the U.S., sparked by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in late June. The ruling paved the way for more than a dozen states to restrict or enact total bans on the procedure.
The decision has created confusion for providers in many states, who — confused and concerned about the potential for legal action — are now delaying or denying in some cases life-saving obstetric services and jeopardizing maternal health. Treating a pregnancy-related medical emergency, such as an ectopic pregnancy or preeclampsia, might be illegal under new state bans, even if they include exemptions for medical emergencies.
In a bid to provide those physicians some cover, the HHS issued guidance on July 11 saying EMTALA preempts state abortion bans when needed for emergency care.
Texas, which passed a law banning most abortions after six weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest, immediately challenged the guidance in a preemptive strike against one tool in the government’s toolbox to protect abortion access nationwide.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Hendrix said the guidance goes “well beyond EMTALA’s text, which protects both mothers and unborn children, is silent as to abortion, and preempts state law only when the two directly conflict.”
“Since the statute is silent on the question, the Guidance cannot answer how doctors should weigh risks to both a mother and her unborn child. Nor can it, in doing so, create a conflict with state law where one does not exist. The Guidance was thus unauthorized,” the judge continued in his opinion.
The ruling was issued just days before a trigger ban in Texas is scheduled to go into effect, which would toughen punishments on those who provide abortions in the state.
It also comes ahead of a ruling expected in a similar case in Idaho. The Department of Justice earlier this month sued the state, claiming its near-total abortion ban prevents doctors from providing emergency care and is thus a violation of EMTALA.