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Abortion rights group seeks legal action over emergencies

Moves to challenge bans in three states center on law requiring public access to emergency treatment

Protesters face off outside the Supreme Court as they wait for its decision in the Dobbs abortion case on June 21, 2022.
Protesters face off outside the Supreme Court as they wait for its decision in the Dobbs abortion case on June 21, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Center for Reproductive Rights announced legal actions in three states Tuesday over abortion bans they say blocked women from seeking abortions in emergency medical circumstances.

The move includes lawsuits in ldaho and Tennessee and a complaint to the Department of Health and Human Services related to Oklahoma’s compliance with a 1986 federal emergency medical care law.

Under the 1986 law, hospitals are required to provide abortions in emergency medical situations in order to receive Medicare funding.

But what constitutes a medical emergency has been a point of contention among legal experts, health care providers and state lawmakers. It has also trickled into congressional debate.

Last year, HHS issued updated guidance on adhering to the 1986 law but has faced legal pushback in Texas. Separately, the Justice Department challenged an Idaho state abortion law. arguing that it violated the 1986 law.

Tuesday’s actions follow a separate lawsuit the Center for Reproductive Rights filed in Texas this year on behalf of 13 Texas women seeking emergency abortions.

Marc Hearron, the center’s senior counsel, said his organization is asking Idaho and Tennessee state courts to clarify the scope of the medical exemptions permitted under state law and to affirm that the state constitution protects the right to abortion to protect the health of the pregnant individual.

Since the Oklahoma Supreme Court already ruled in March that the state constitution protects the right to an abortion in lifesaving circumstances, Hearron said the center opted to file a federal complaint with HHS regarding Oklahoma after a woman named Jaci Statton was denied an emergency abortion at multiple hospitals after being diagnosed with a partial molar pregnancy.

“We hope this federal complaint will make sure hospitals know that regardless of what state law says, federal law requires them to offer abortion care to patients,” Hearron said.

Statton, who was later able to receive an abortion in Kansas, said she and her husband could not get over what happened in Oklahoma, prompting her to file the complaint.

“We were turned away from so many hospitals where skilled and caring doctors cannot act to save my life,” she said.

Rabia Muqaddam, who is leading the Oklahoma complaint, said she is hopeful that HHS will issue a similar resolution to a separate complaint issued this year in Missouri.

If the department finds the hospitals did not adhere to expectations under federal law, HHS could work to ensure future obligations are met or issue fines or funding penalties.

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