If SCOTUS Restricts Emergency Abortion Care, Poor and At-Risk Populations Will Suffer Most

EMTALA embodies the fundamental principle that medical care should be accessible to all, especially in moments of crisis.

The Biden administration has sued Idaho, saying that state’s abortion ban violates EMTALA because its exceptions are too narrow to allow doctors to perform abortions if needed to stabilize a patient. (Catherine McQueen / Getty Images)

In 1986, Congress enacted the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) to ensure that individuals, regardless of their ability to pay, receive necessary medical treatment in emergency situations. This landmark legislation was designed to safeguard the lives of at-risk people, including those with disabilities, by requiring hospitals to stabilize patients before transferring or discharging them.

On April 24, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments and, by the summer, issue a critical decision regarding EMTALA and abortion rights. SCOTUS will ultimately decide whether EMTALA preempts state laws like Idaho’s anti-abortion trigger law, the Defense of Life Act.

The implications for at-risk women, particularly those protected by EMTALA, cannot be ignored.

The impending SCOTUS case, Moyle v. United States (consolidated from Idaho v. United States), threatens to undermine the principles enshrined in our Constitution on EMTALA, particularly regarding access to reproductive healthcare for at-risk individuals. EMTALA requires patients be offered abortion care to save their life or prevent other serious medical complications, conflicting with Idaho’s Defense of Life state ban which restricts abortion care, even in emergency and life-threatening situations.

Abortion care is a crucial aspect of reproductive health, and restricting access to it disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations. For many at-risk individuals, denial of abortion care can exacerbate existing health conditions or pose significant risks to their well-being.

EMTALA embodies the fundamental principle that medical care should be accessible to all, especially in moments of crisis. It prohibits hospitals from denying treatment based on a patient’s ability to pay or their insurance status. This provision is particularly significant for marginalized communities, including women with disabilities, who often face barriers to healthcare access. By ensuring that individuals receive stabilizing treatment—which can include abortion care—regardless of their financial circumstances, EMTALA has undoubtedly saved countless lives and upheld the dignity of all patients.

The potential further erosion of abortion rights not only jeopardizes bodily autonomy but also endangers the health and safety of those protected by EMTALA. This not only violates women’s constitutional rights but also undermines the intent of EMTALA to provide timely and adequate medical treatment to all in need.

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Sylvia Ghazarian is the executive director of WRRAP, the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, a nonprofit abortion fund that provides urgently-needed financial assistance on a national level to those seeking abortion or emergency contraception. She is an active council member on the California Future of Abortion Council and past chair of The Commission on the Status of Women.