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Physicians sound off on Supreme Court case that pits emergency care against state abortion bans

A shot of the exterior of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. The stately columns are in full view, and there are no people in the photo. It's a sunny day.
Mark Schiefelbein
Associated Press
The Supreme Court building is seen on Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Washington. The court is expected to make a ruling in a case involving Idaho's near-total abortion ban, which bars the procedure even in a medical emergency. That's in conflict with a federal law that requires most hospitals to provide life-saving care — including abortions if a mother's life is in danger.

The Supreme Court is expected to make its decision in the coming days on a federal law requiring hospitals to provide stabilizing emergency care, including abortions. A group representing thousands of doctors is warning of the consequences if it’s overturned. 

The federal government says the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) requires hospitals to provide stabilizing care, including an abortion if it's needed. EMTALA was passed in 1986 and says that most hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid payments from the federal government — which is most hospitals in the U.S. — has to provide care to any patient whose life or health is in danger. If the hospital can't provide this treatment, it has to provide transport to a hospital that can.

In August 2022, Idaho's strict abortion ban came into effect, banning abortion in almost all circumstances, including in medical emergencies. This set up the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Idaho argued its state-level abortion ban supersedes federal law, which could have an effect on other Western states.

“Denying life-saving care goes against everything we believe and work for as doctors,” said Dr. Joseph Adashek, a maternal fetal medicine specialist in Las Vegas and President of the Nevada State Medical Association. “Can you imagine being pregnant suffering a life threatening complication and being told in the emergency room there’s nothing the doctors can do, even when there is?”

Adashek is a member of the Committee to Protect Health Care which supports enshrining abortion protection into state constitutions, even in places such as Nevada, where abortion access remains available.

Dr. Emily Fleming, an emergency physician in Whitefish, Montana, says an erosion of EMTALA could affect states where abortion remains accessible.

“We’ve heard of patients in neighboring Idaho whose abortion ban is at the heart of this Supreme Court case, being denied care already.  We cannot let that happen in Montana,” Fleming said.

The Committee to Protect Health Care said physicians in states with abortion restrictions are seeing colleagues leave and medical residents opting to go elsewhere.

"Missouri already has a shortage of physicians — as much as 80% of Missouri lacks a primary care provider and medical residents are avoiding states with abortion bans,” said Dr. Jennifer Smith, an OB-GYN doctor in St. Louis. Missouri also has a strict abortion ban.

“Missouri has seen a 25% drop in applications for OB-GYN residencies since our abortion went into effect in 2022," she said. "This situation will only become more dire if EMTALA is weakened.”

Dr. Hiral Tipirmeni, is an emergency medicine physician in Glendale, Arizona. A Civil War-era law that banned abortion completely in the state was repealed in May 2024, but that repeal is still up in the air until the fall.

“These bans directly oppose our oath and the standards of science-based, data-driven medical care,” Tipirmeni said.

Physicians with the Committee to Protect Health Care support enshrining abortion protection into state constitutions. Nevada isn't the only Mountain West state where access to abortion will be on the November ballot. In Arizona, voters will vote on the Arizona Abortion Access Act.

“ It’s time to get politicians out of our healthcare decisions and let doctors do their jobs to protect our patients health and lives,” Tipirmeni said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) in Las Vegas, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.