Abortions not covered by EMTALA in Texas hospitals, judge rules

A federal judge in Texas backed the state's attorney general Aug. 23 by preliminarily halting HHS guidance, which stated that federal law requires hospitals funded by Medicare to treat patients with appropriate medical emergency care, including abortions when medically necessary, and overrides state laws banning abortions. 

The law is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, enacted in 1986 by Congress. It requires that Medicare hospitals provide all patients appropriate emergency care irrespective of any state laws or mandates that apply to specific procedures. In July, HHS distributed guidance that if a hospital is in a state that prohibits abortion by law and does not make exceptions for the health or life of a pregnant person, EMTALA preempts that state law. 

On Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix in Lubbock agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued HHS in July, alleging that the guidance that EMTALA covers abortions is unlawful. Mr. Paxton requested a temporary restraining order against the rule. 

The judge preliminarily halted enforcement of HHS' guidance in Texas, describing HHS' guidance as an overreach and calling it "unauthorized" in his 67-page opinion and order, leaving Texas hospitals and physicians to now "defer to Texas law to supply the standard of care concerning abortion in medical emergencies."

Abortion is banned in Texas because of a law from before Roe v. Wade that is being enforced. The ban makes no exceptions for rape or incest. The state's trigger law, set to take effect Aug. 25, will increase the penalties for those involved in an illegal abortion — putting physicians who perform the procedure at risk of facing life in prison and fines no less than $100,000 for each violation. 

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