Whose Life Matters? The Battle Over Emergency Care

by Kelli R. Parker on Apr 23, 2024

Photo by Ted Eytan of protesters outside the Supreme Court building on the day Roe v. Wade was overturned by the justices, June 24, 2022. One holds a sign that says Liberate Abortion.

In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTALA) to ensure hospitals provide emergency care to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. However, since the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson decision struck down the constitutional right to abortion, some states have passed severe bans that prevent doctors from performing abortions — even when it’s a matter of life or death for the pregnant person.

The Core Issue: Whose Rights Come First?

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that could determine whether these state abortion bans can override the federal requirement for emergency care. At its core, Idaho v. United States and Moyle v. United States raises a fundamental question: whose rights take precedence in a risky pregnancy situation, the pregnant person’s or the fetus’?

Most Americans (86%) believe the pregnant person’s health must be protected if their life is endangered. But anti-abortion activists pushing these extreme state bans are asserting that fetuses deserve equal or greater legal rights than the pregnant person, even if upholding those “fetal rights” could cost them their life or health.

What’s at Stake?

Imagine a pregnant person develops severe complications like uncontrolled bleeding or an ectopic pregnancy (where the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus). In emergencies like these, abortion may be the only way to stabilize and save that person’s life. But some state laws now ban or severely restrict abortion in those medical crises, even to protect the birthing person’s health or future fertility. Situations like this have already led to horror stories of pregnant women being denied emergency abortions and suffering trauma, fertility loss, or death.

The Biden administration argues the federal emergency care law (EMTALA) should override state abortion restrictions in crisis cases. But officials in states like Idaho and Texas say EMTALA doesn’t give the government power to “mandate abortions” against state laws.

For medical professionals, the stakes are enormous. They could face criminal charges or lose their licenses for performing an emergency abortion prohibited by their state’s laws, even if they believe it’s necessary to save a patient’s life.

The Push to Ban Abortion Nationwide

Cases like Idaho v. United States are part of a coordinated legal strategy by anti-abortion extremists who want to ban abortion nationwide and dismantle reproductive rights altogether. These efforts go beyond just restricting abortion access; they would grant legal personhood to fetuses and embryos, which endangers fertility treatments, contraceptives, and other essential healthcare.

What’s Next?

When the Supreme Court rules on these cases, the justices will essentially decide if the government can step in to protect emergency abortion care when state laws put the lives of pregnant people in danger.

The court has the power to preserve core values of bodily autonomy or sacrifice those principles to an extreme agenda imposed by a vocal minority.

Take Action

We’re fighting to put an end to these cruel and constant attacks on our freedom and make sure that everyone can get the care they need when and where they need it. We won’t stop until abortion is affordable, widely available, and readily accessible.

To safeguard reproductive rights and emergency care access, everyone must advocate for policies prioritizing patient health and bodily autonomy. Support advocacy groups like WREN, contact lawmakers, and raise awareness to protect these rights for everyone.

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