Abortions Are Federally Protected When A Pregnancy Is Life-Threatening Regardless Of State Law, The Biden Administration Says

A 1986 federal law mandating that hospitals treat medical emergencies — including ones where an abortion is needed — supersedes state laws banning the procedure, officials said.

Abortions performed to save a patient's life or well-being are legally protected regardless of state laws that may prohibit them, according to guidance issued by federal officials said Monday.

The guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services is meant to reassure healthcare providers, particularly those in states where abortion is banned, that federal law is on their side "when offering legally-mandated, life- or health-saving abortion services in emergency situations."

Officials pointed to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), a federal law passed in 1986, which requires hospitals to treat people experiencing emergency medical conditions, including pregnant patients whose health is in "serious jeopardy."

No changes are being made to this law, HHS officials said in a call with journalists on Monday. Rather, the guidance serves to reaffirm the existence of EMTALA and remind people that it supersedes any state laws banning abortion.

“Under the law, no matter where you live, women have the right to emergency care — including abortion care,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press release. “Today, in no uncertain terms, we are reinforcing that we expect providers to continue offering these services, and that federal law preempts state abortion bans when needed for emergency care."

Monday's announcement comes days after President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing HHS to take steps to protect access to abortion and other reproductive health services.

The order came in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the federal precedent that has for nearly 50 years protected a pregnant person's right to have an abortion before a fetus is viable. Since it was struck down last month, abortion has been made illegal in several states, with more expected to follow.

The decision has sparked terror and outrage nationwide, with many people fearing what might happen when abortion access is a matter of life or death — for example, in the case of ectopic pregnancies, which can be deadly if not quickly treated.

EMTALA does not just protect the right to abortion in life-threatening situations — it also includes matters where the patient's life may not be at risk but their health is, officials said. By law, they said, doctors do not have to wait for a medical issue to become potentially deadly before acting. This clarification is crucial for medical professionals across the country, many of whom have expressed concern that performing abortions may put them at serious legal risk, particularly in states where the procedure is only permitted in life-threatening situations.

"Protecting both patients and providers is a top priority, particularly in this moment," Becerra said. "Health care must be between a patient and their doctor, not a politician. We will continue to leverage all available resources at HHS to make sure women can access the life-saving care they need.”

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