Federal Court Rules Texas Can Outlaw Emergency Abortions

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Tuesday that the federal government cannot enforce guidelines requiring Texas to allow hospital emergency rooms to perform abortions to stabilize patients having a medical emergency.

The state secured the ruling from the 5th Circuit after filing a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s Administration that accused the government in Washington of overstepping its bounds to enforce emergency abortion guidelines. The lawsuit is one of a number of state lawsuits regarding exceptions to abortion bans based on medical emergencies.

In July 2022, the Biden Administration asserted, under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), that the federal government can mandate that states allow abortion in cases when an emergency room physician believes it is necessary to stabilize a patient having a medical emergency, even where it would not otherwise be legal under state law.

The federal government issued the EMTALA guidance shortly after the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision under the Burger Court that guaranteed abortion nationwide as a legal right on the basis of a constitutional right to privacy.

The state of Texas and two pro-life medical associations — the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations — then sued the administration, claiming the guidance interfered with the state’s legal prerogative under Dobbs v. Jackson.

A lower court judge sided with the litigants in Aug. 2022. The judge ruled that EMTALA does not state the requirements that the Biden Administration asserted in its guidance on the law. The judge ruled that the Texas abortion ban, on the other hand, does specify narrow exceptions in some cases to protect the life of a mother or prevent injuries.

On appeal, the 5th Circuit Court upheld the lower court decision this week. Circuit Judge Kurt Engelhardt wrote in the opinion for the circuit court panel that EMTALA “does not provide an unqualified right for the pregnant mother to abort her child.” The federal decision comes a month after the Texas Supreme Court rejected a suit from a woman seeking an emergency abortion.