NEW YORK – After a federal appeals court ruled Jan. 2 that emergency room doctors in Texas are not required to perform abortions, effectively blocking regulatory guidance previously issued by the federal government, the state’s Catholic bishops said they welcome the ruling.
“We celebrate the decision by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops said in a Jan. 3 statement. “The court’s decision affirms that this attempt to require abortions violates both the Texas Human Life Protection Act and the principles of the Catholic Ethical and Religious Directives for Healthcare.”
The ruling dates back to 2022, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986 to make sure abortions were accessible in emergency situations. In essence, the guidance held that federal law requires doctors to perform abortions if it is the “the stabilizing treatment necessary,” even in states where the procedure is illegal.
The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986 requires hospitals with emergency departments that receive Medicare reimbursement to provide patient’s a medical screening and, if an emergency medical condition exists, necessary stabilizing treatment or an appropriate transfer.
When HHS issued the new guidance to the law in 2022, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued it would “force abortions” in state hospitals, and promptly sued. As of the summer of 2022 when Roe v. Wade was overturned, abortions are banned in Texas with limited exceptions.
The district court originally sided with Texas, which prompted an appeal from HHS.
On Jan. 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed that ruling in favor of Texas. In part, Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled that the emergency medical treatment law “does not mandate any specific type of medical treatment, let alone abortion.”
“We agree with the district court that EMTALA does not provide an unqualified right for the pregnant mother to abort her child especially when EMTALA imposes equal stabilization obligations,” Engelhardt concluded.
HHS did not immediately respond to a Crux request for comment on the ruling.
In a statement in response to the ruling, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said the organization will fight back.
“While [anti-abortion lawmakers and their allies] continue their quest for power and control over people’s bodies, Planned Parenthood will fight back every step of the way,” Johnson said. “Patients and doctors should be making these sensitive and life-changing decisions — not agenda-driven politicians with no medical expertise.”
The Texas bishops said in their statement on the ruling that the state’s Catholic hospitals in Texas have always provided “compassionate” care for women in compliance with EMTALA, including since Texas’s abortion ban was implemented.
“Catholic hospitals, including in Texas, have been providing compassionate care for women and babies (born and unborn) for centuries without elective abortions, and in full compliance with EMTALA since its inception,” the bishops said. “The new law in Texas has not impacted their ability to provide consistent care for these families in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
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