Commentary

Idaho hospitals must provide care to every person that walks into the ER — even pregnant patients

Idaho’s restrictive abortion laws created confusion that is putting patients’ lives at risk, writes guest columnist Wendy Heipt.

November 21, 2022 4:15 am
Healthcare worker giving support and love to a patient

The emerging data is clear: people with severe pregnancy complications now face more than the loss of a wanted pregnancy, writes guest columnist Wendy Heipt. Due to Idaho’s abortion laws, they face delayed care, poorer outcomes and the risk of infection and death.

For years, anyone showing up at an American hospital emergency room could get the life saving treatment they needed. No matter who they were, a federal law known as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, made it clear: if you showed up at an emergency room that hospital had an obligation to do what had to be done to stabilize you. If an investigation found that they didn’t provide the treatment that you needed, the hospitals and the doctors themselves faced severe penalties. Throughout Idaho, and across the country, hospitals understood this and they did what they could to save the life of every person who came through their doors. Including pregnant people.

Until Idaho’s restrictive abortion laws created confusion that is putting patients’ lives at risk.

In August, Idaho’s abortion ban went into effect and pregnant people across the state could no longer count on receiving the medical treatment they needed when they experienced severe pregnancy complications. That’s because the new laws don’t make it clear when a pregnant persons life is enough at risk to warrant life saving treatment. Instead of asking, how can we best treat this person? the question became, how imminent does this woman’s death have to be before she’s in enough danger to perform a procedure that will save her life but end her pregnancy?

The federal government saw this problem and took Idaho to court. They wanted to make it clear to everyone in the state that under EMTALA even pregnant people have the right to the  treatment required to prevent serious impairments to their health. The Idaho court agreed. That should mean that Idaho women who show up at ERs with severe pregnancy complications can count on receiving the care they need. Only it hasn’t worked that way. As the president of the American Medical Association said this month, physicians are still being “caught between good medicine and bad law.”  

Across the country, reports of women showing up at hospital ERs and being denied the care they need — often with disastrous results — are mounting. In Missouri, a woman showed up at an ER after her water broke 18 weeks into her pregnancy. Even though her pregnancy was no longer viable and she was at high risk of infection and in pain, doctors could not offer her the treatment medically called for and she had to travel to another state. A number of Texas hospitals are also the subject of EMTALA investigations, although those cases have not been made public. But a study published last month confirms that maternal health outcomes at two Texas hospitals for pregnant women presenting with severe complications is significantly worse since that state passed abortion similar to what we have here.

The emerging data is clear: people with severe pregnancy complications now face more than the loss of a wanted pregnancy. They face delayed care, poorer outcomes and the risk of infection and death. 

Luckily, EMTALA is more than just words. There are serious consequences for hospitals, and for doctors, when all the care needed — including abortion care — isn’t provided to a pregnant person.

If anyone in Idaho has experienced this problem, they can call the state Department of Health at 208-334-6626. Of course, we don’t want patients to receive substandard care and we don’t want to punish health care professionals trying to negotiate the confusing and fraught landscape that Idaho’s anti abortion laws created. We just want everyone to be clear:  

Idaho hospitals must provide the appropriate medical care to every person that walks into their ERs. Even pregnant people.

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Wendy Heipt
Wendy Heipt

Wendy Heipt is reproductive rights counsel at Legal Voice. Legal Voice works in courtrooms, legislatures and communities across the Northwest to protect reproductive autonomy.

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