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Ohio doctors watching U.S. Supreme Court on law requiring emergency care and abortion

U.S. Supreme Court
Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
U.S. Supreme Court

Doctors in Ohio are closely watching a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a federal law that requires hospitals that receive federal money to provide treatment in emergency rooms.

It's the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Congress passed it in 1986 as a way to prevent "patient dumping," the practice of hospitals turning away patients in emergencies because they lacked health insurance. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case over EMTALA because there are questions about whether it is affected by Idaho's strict anti-abortion laws.

Dr. Laurel Barr, an emergency medicine doctor in Central Ohio, said EMTALA speaks for patients in emergency situations when they might be unable to speak for themselves.

"Imagine if you are in a car accident and too sick to tell me what your name is let alone what your insurance is. Do you think I should treat you? So do I and I do because EMTALA lets me,” Barr said. “But if I work at the hospital where the policy is to look to see where you have insurance first, and you can't tell me, then we might not treat you or we might waste precious time trying to figure that out.”

Barr said the Idaho abortion laws were at odds with the federal law. And if the U.S. Supreme Court rules state laws on abortion can pre-empt EMTALA, that could end up with ER doctors in a position to delay or deny care or therapeutic abortions in emergency situations.

“If we can’t treat pregnant women under EMTALA, then when is it that we can’t treat strokes or heart attacks as well?" Barr asked.

In November, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to abortion, miscarriage treatment and other reproductive care. But so far no legislation has been passed to enact specifics, and laws that restrict abortion remain in place. That includes a ban on abortion after six weeks, though that law is on hold because of a court challenge from before last fall’s vote.

The case comes to the nation's high court after the Biden administration sued Idaho for adopting an abortion ban that conflicts with federal law.

But Idaho has argued its abortion laws do not conflict with EMTALA. In court documents, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian law firm, has argued in court papers that its ban does not conflict with EMTALA. One reason given is that EMTALA does not mention abortion and cannot compel doctors to offer care that is illegal under state law.

A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on the case is expected in June. 

Contact Jo Ingles at
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