Feds Investigating Hospitals in 2 States That Refused To Perform Life-Saving Abortion
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is looking into two hospitals that refused to perform an abortion on a Missouri woman whose health and life was threatened by the continuation of her pregnancy.
When Mylissa Farmer was just 18 weeks pregnant, her water broke. Farmer first went to Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Missouri, where staff determined chances were very low that the fetus could be saved and that Farmer could suffer serious complications—sepsis, a blood clot, uterine loss, hemorrhaging, even death—if she continued to be pregnant.
This, however, did not yet constitute the sort of “medical emergency” required by Missouri law to justify an abortion—putting any doctor who performed one at risk of 15 years in prison and the loss of their license. “Missouri law supercedes [sic] our medical judgment,” a doctor wrote in Farmer’s medical records, according to a complaint filed by the National Women’s Law Center on behalf of Farmer. Hospital staff told Farmer she could wait until the situation grew more dire, or travel out of state to obtain an abortion.
So Farmer then went to the University of Kansas Hospital, in Kansas City, where doctors determined that her pregnancy was definitely no longer viable. But doctors also refused to perform an abortion or to induce labor, saying that it was “too risky in this heated political environment to intervene,” per Farmer’s complaint.
Farmer then traveled to a third state, Illinois, where she was finally able to terminate her doomed pregnancy and save her own life.
On Monday, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra sent a letter to the hospitals that refused to perform an abortion on Farmer, reminding them about earlier HHS guidance regarding their duties under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Last July, not long after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, HHS told hospitals that they weren’t allowed to deny abortions to women whose life or health was at risk—regardless of what state law says.
This federal guidance combined with state laws prohibiting abortion unless a woman’s life is threatened has put hospitals and medical providers in a very difficult position. Perform an abortion to protect a woman’s health and they could run afoul of state laws, face the loss of medical licenses and possibly criminal prosecution; decline to perform an abortion and they could be in trouble with the federal government.
While a federal judge last year blocked HHS from enforcing its guidance regarding the EMTALA and abortion, the order only applies in Texas. The Biden administration is currently appealing that ruling. In the meantime, “providers can’t assume EMTALA carries more weight than a state ban, at least not until the legal process is carried out,” notes Axios.
Now, for the first time since HHS issued that EMTALA guidance last summer, it’s investigating hospitals for allegedly violating the law by “not offer[ing] necessary stabilizing care to an individual experiencing an emergency medical condition,” as Becerra put it.
The investigation is being led by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). “If CMS determines that they are not in compliance, the hospitals could become ineligible for future Medicare funding,” Axios points out. Or HHS could refer the case to the Office of the Inspector General for civil enforcement action.
“As we have made explicitly clear: we will use the full extent of our legal authority, consistent with orders from the courts, to enforce protections for individuals who seek emergency care—including when that care is an abortion,” said Becerra in a Monday statement. “Today, we send a reminder to hospitals participating in Medicare: you are obligated under EMTALA to offer stabilizing care to patients who need emergency care, and we will
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