Biden’s in Damage Control After Failing to Help Pregnant Woman Who Was Denied Emergency Abortion

On Friday, a WaPo report found that the Biden administration rejected a woman’s EMTALA complaint. The report also found few people even know what EMTALA is.

Biden’s in Damage Control After Failing to Help Pregnant Woman Who Was Denied Emergency Abortion

For the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Monday, the Biden-Harris administration marked the occasion with some fairly useless social media posts—before announcing something that could actually be helpful: Public education initiatives to teach patients about their rights to emergency health care including abortion, and teach hospitals how to comply with federal law in such cases.

Specifically, the new plan would “educate the public about their rights to emergency medical care and to help support efforts of hospitals to meet their obligations under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).” EMTALA is a federal law that requires doctors to provide stabilizing, emergency care to patients—including emergency abortion care to pregnant patients with nonviable, dangerous pregnancies.

The timing of this announcement from the Biden administration’s Health and Human Services Department (specifically, the department’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS) is interesting not just because of the Roe anniversary, but because of a pretty damning report from the Washington Post on Friday. The plan may have been announced on the anniversary of Roe, but it mentions the word abortion just once. If anything, instead of commemorating this anniversary, the announcement seems to be damage control for the news from Friday.

Per the Post report, Biden’s HHS rejected an EMTALA complaint filed by an Oklahoma woman who was denied life-saving abortion care from OU Health University of Oklahoma Medical Center in 2023. According to the woman, Jaci Statton, she learned she was suffering from a molar pregnancy that resulted in cancerous tissue developing, and was at risk of hemorrhage and death. Despite this, she says the hospital asked her to “sit in the parking lot” and told her, “We cannot touch you unless you are crashing in front of us or your blood pressure goes so high that you are fixing to have a heart attack.” Biden HHS officials did not comment on why Statton’s EMTALA complaint was rejected.

The Post’s report further detailed that since 2022—when the Supreme Court overturned Roe and Biden issued a guidance telling hospitals that they must adhere to EMTALA even if abortion is banned in their state—the administration has publicly taken up just one EMTALA complaint. In May, CMS determined that two hospitals that turned away a Missouri woman named Mylissa Farmer, whose pregnancy threatened her life, had violated EMTALA. But other than Farmer’s case, Biden officials told the Post that “some” EMTALA disputes “have been settled quietly, with hospitals agreeing to change their policies behind the scenes.” In response to this claim from Biden officials, Rabia Muqaddam, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the Post that “true accountability requires the public and other hospitals to know about these violations.”

The Post further reported that out of seven patients with cases involving pregnancy complications that could involve EMTALA violations, just two knew about EMTALA. And the public nature of the CMS ruling on Farmer’s case notably may have helped other pregnant women in states where abortion is banned: An Idaho-based doctor told the outlet that she was able to “pressure her hospital’s lawyers into explicitly allowing doctors to provide abortions for patients with [Farmer’s] condition.”

So, given this reporting on Friday, it’s interesting that Biden’s CMS on Monday morning announced a slate of new efforts to inform patients about their rights and teach hospitals how to comply with EMTALA. This plan includes new informational resources about the law on the CMS website, partnerships with hospitals “to disseminate training materials” and “discuss best practices,” and “establish a dedicated team of HHS experts who will increase the Department’s capacity to support hospitals in complying with” the federal law. The press release references abortion, specifically, just once, stating that the administration “has long taken the position that this required emergency care can, in some circumstances, include abortion care.”

“We are heartened that the Biden Administration is taking serious action to enforce EMTALA. We need hospitals to be publicly held accountable for their actions,” Muqaddam said of the newly announced plan in a statement shared with Jezebel on Monday. “But, EMTALA shouldn’t be the only federal statutory protection for pregnant people whose lives are on the line. We need Congress to pass more federal laws protecting abortion access, like the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would reestablish the right to abortion nationwide. Until that happens, this public health crisis will continue.”

On Friday, Muqaddam told the Post that the Biden administration’s decision to reject Statton’s EMTALA complaint “inexplicable, frankly,” while the National Women’s Law Center’s director of national strategy on abortion rights told Jezebel that without the full facts, it’s difficult to say why Statton’s complaint was rejected.

All of that said, you know the state of reproductive rights in the U.S. is bleak when much of it now hinges on an ongoing debate over whether pregnant people have a right to live, and whether they or their embryos are the “patients” deserving of stabilizing emergency care. The Biden administration’s newly announced plan to publicize EMTALA also comes at a time when his reelection campaign is leaning heavily into abortion rights. This makes sense given abortion rights are incredibly popular—but what’s a little disorienting is the fact that the administration doesn’t have too many policy achievements on the matter to point to. And, of course, its claims of supporting reproductive rights fly in the face of everything that’s being inflicted on pregnant and birthing women in Gaza with our tax dollars, as Biden remains steadfast about refusing to demand a ceasefire.

I hope this new effort around EMTALA tangibly helps pregnant people who may find themselves facing medical emergencies. I also wish it didn’t take a damning report about the administration’s shortcomings on this issue for Biden to take this relatively small step.

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