Then to the Supreme Court Dobbs decision to eliminate federal protections for abortion, Texas has become a tense battleground. State doctors and anti-abortion groups sued the Department of Health and Human Services in July, alleging that federal protections for emergency abortions violate Texas state law.
On Tuesday, a The Texas judge agreed.
the same day several non-profit groups that support reproductive justice sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and several prosecutors to protect their ability to help pregnant Texans obtain safe abortions in other states.
Then, on Thursday, Texas’ trigger ban, the Protection of Human Life Act, went into effect. The new law criminalizes performing an abortion unless the pregnant patient faces a “life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or resulting from pregnancy.”
“The litigation is just beginning,” it said Caroline Wrigley, partner in the healthcare practice group at McDermott Will & Emery.
She said the lawsuit filed by the nonprofits is “Just another example of how Dobbs did not end the abortion debate or limit judicial intervention.’
Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendricks in the Northern District of Texas blocked protections issued by HHS under Emergency Medical Care and Labor Law (EMTALA) for doctors who perform life-saving abortions. Because the HHS guidelines were intended as a defense for providers or hospitals that were sued, it’s unclear how it will play out now that Judge Hendricks has ruled that Texas law takes precedence over the EMTALA guidelines, Wrigley said.
The judge’s decision was based on the fact that HHS did not follow protocol for issuing guidance under the Administrative Protection Act, including allowing public comment on the rule, and not on a specific case of a doctor or hospital being sued for performing an abortion .
What might happen, Reigli said, is say a doctor has a pregnant patient who comes to the emergency room and has a medical emergency. The doctor then performs an abortion and the state of Texas tries to file a lawsuit against the doctor and the hospital. In that case, there could be a challenge based on the EMTALA guidelines versus state law to see how the two interact. She expects similar cases in the future.
Whether EMTALA will prevent state restrictions on abortion will be determined on a state-by-state basis.
“The district court judge’s ruling is that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Office of Inspector General, the two HHS agencies with authority to impose penalties under EMTALA) cannot enforce the administration’s interpretation of EMTALA in Texas or against physicians, who have taken action,” Reigli said. “This ruling could theoretically affect HHS’s ability to categorically impose sanctions (under EMTALA) on Texas providers who fail to provide appropriate stabilization care to a pregnant patient.”
Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution looms large over abortion advocates, as outlined in the lawsuit filed by the nonprofit groups. The plaintiffs, including Fund Texas Choice, the North Texas Equal Access Fund and others, allege they were unfairly harassed.
“The threats are multiple and extensive, and the intimidation has chilled helping professionals to provide counseling, financial, logistical and even informational assistance to pregnant Texans who may need access to out-of-state abortion care,” according to the complaint.
As evidence the plaintiffs cite letter sent to Sidley Austin Law Firm by a group of Texas lawmakers known as the Texas Freedom Forum threatening criminal prosecution against the company and its partners for reimbursing travel expenses for employees “who leave Texas to kill their unborn children.”
The groups are asking the court for preliminary and permanent injunctions against the named prosecutors, barring them from suing the abortion groups for any abortion-related conduct outside of Texas.
Photo: ericsphotography, Getty Images