Can Politicians Deny Emergency Care to Pregnant People?

Doctors don’t need legal explainers about the best course of treatment. They need to be able to do their jobs without political interference.


Most people assume that a hospital is the safest place to be in the event of a medical emergency. But that’s not true for pregnant people in South Dakota. Because of the state’s total ban on all abortion care, with a dangerously vague exception for the life of the pregnant patient, pregnant people experiencing life- and health-threatening conditions are at risk while hospital lawyers attempt to interpret the law into what kind of medical care doctors can provide for them. That’s not easy to do in a time-sensitive, emergency situation.

Our state legislators think an educational video will help.

The video isn’t available yet – the Department of Health has until Sept. 1 to finish it, according to the law passed this year ordering its production – but legislators think it will help doctors understand when they can end a pregnancy without risking prison time under the state’s near-total abortion ban.

Doctors don’t need legal explainers about the best course of treatment. They need to be able to do their jobs without political interference.

But that political interference is happening more and more across the country – and the fight has even reached the United States Supreme Court with a case that could affect emergency care for pregnant South Dakotans.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Idaho and Moyle, et al. v. United States, which will determine whether politicians can put doctors in jail for treating pregnant patients experiencing medical emergencies. The ultimate decision in the case — which is expected this month — could have severe consequences on the health and lives of people across the country facing emergency pregnancy complications.

Here’s what you need to know:

This case is about politicians trying to block emergency care for pregnant patients.

A federal law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act or EMTALA, has long guaranteed that, in an emergency, patients can get the care they need — including abortion care — regardless of where they live. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue: Every administration from President Reagan to President Biden has recognized that EMTALA requires emergency abortion care. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade did not diminish these longstanding federal protections, which override state laws that would prohibit such care, but now, extreme politicians are doing everything in their power to prevent someone experiencing emergency pregnancy complications from getting care in emergency rooms.

This case could have a severe impact on emergency care across the country.

While it considers the case, the Supreme Court has already allowed Idaho politicians to block emergency care for pregnant people using the state’s abortion ban which has no exception for health, and the impact is already reverberating across the state. For example, St. Luke’s Health System, the largest health system in Idaho, which sees hundreds of thousands of emergency department visits each year, reports that they are now transferring pregnant patients with medical emergencies out of state to get the care they need, but even that delay can also increase the unacceptable risks patients face.

This case is about doctors and hospitals that want to provide care, but politicians want to stop them from treating patients.

The issues in this case are about hospitals and physicians who want to fulfill their oath and provide care to patients experiencing medical emergencies, but politicians want to enforce Idaho’s abortion ban up until the moment that a pregnant person’s life is at imminent risk.

“Can I continue to replace her blood loss fast enough? How many organ systems must be failing? Can a patient be hours away from death before I intervene or does it have to be minutes?”

The extremists behind this case won’t stop with abortion.

Overturning Roe v. Wade was just the beginning. Anti-abortion politicians are using every tool at their disposal in their campaign to ban abortion nationwide, and they won’t stop there. They are also pushing a legal strategy to give rights to embryos and fetuses that would override the rights of the pregnant person. We saw what happened in Alabama when the state supreme court granted rights to embryos, which forced IVF clinics across the state to temporarily shut down services. To be clear: There isn’t a serious argument to use EMTALA to grant legal rights to embryos, but that may not stop justices from considering whether to follow the lead of the anti-abortion movement and issue another devastating blow to people’s power to make personal medical decisions during pregnancy.

We have the power to fight back!

While there is already federal law to protect access to emergency care, the way anti-abortion politicians are trying to manipulate their state’s ban to deny people emergency care shows why we need to put an end to state bans once and for all. We need Congress to pass federal protections for abortion rights that will end extreme bans in states and protect access to care nationwide.

A version of this column also appeared in The Dakota Scout.