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Biden Admin. announces federal steps to protect abortion rights

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Biden Admin. announces federal steps to protect abortion rights
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On Monday, the Biden administration announced that federal law preempts state abortion bans when emergency care is needed and that the federal government can penalize institutions or providers that fail to provide abortions as needed to treat medical emergencies.

“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 news release Monday. “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.”

Per CNN, in more than a dozen states, legal fights are underway over abortion bans and other laws that strictly limit the procedure after the US Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision June 24.

Biden Administration looks to reassure American women seeking emergency care.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra furthered, “Under the law, no matter where you live, women have the right to emergency care — including abortion care.”

In a letter to the nation’s health care providers on Monday, Becerra said a federal statute called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, also known as EMTALA, protects providers’ clinical judgment and the actions they take to provide stabilizing treatment to pregnant patients who are under emergency medical conditions, regardless of restrictions in any given state.

The act has been in existence since 1986. It specifically requires all patients get appropriate medical screening, examination, stabilizing treatment and facility transfer.

The administration said examples of emergency medical conditions include, but are not limited to, ectopic pregnancy – when the fertilized egg grows outside a woman’s uterus – and complications of miscarriages. Stabilizing treatment could include abortion.

Vague language from the White House led to unease in America’s hospitals and clinics.

“We heard a lot from physicians that we needed to be clearer on these points because people were still too scared to treat people,” a senior adviser with HHS said in a background briefing. The new guidance is “meant to try to provide that reassurance here on the clinical judgment of these physicians and hospitals.”

“Most doctors are scared out of their minds right now because the threats they face are so severe and scary,” said Greer Donnelly, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on abortion rights. “But the government can say: You don’t just have the right to provide an abortion to someone having an emergency, you have a responsibility to do so. And even if you’re an anti-abortion doctor who doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t matter. The hospital has to provide the patient with someone else who is willing to do it.”

According to CNN, the statute applies to emergency departments and other specific clinical settings. Providers also will not have to wait for a patient’s condition to worsen to be protected.

Penalties will be costly to non-compliant doctors and hospitals

If a hospital is found to be in violation of the statute, it could lose its Medicare and Medicaid provider agreements and could face civil penalties. An individual physician could also face civil penalties if they are found to be in violation.

HHS may impose a $119,942 fine per violation for hospitals with more than 100 beds and $59,973 for hospitals with fewer than 100 beds. A physician could face a $119,942 fine per violation.

The statute also has a whistleblower provision that prevents retaliation by a hospital against an employee who refuses to transfer a patient with an emergency medical condition who has not been stabilized.

“Health care must be between a patient and their doctor, not a politician,” Becerra said. “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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