Conservative Justices Question Federal Law Mandating Emergency Room Abortions

Conservative Justices Question Federal Law Mandating Emergency Room Abortions

Conservative Supreme Court Justices Express Skepticism Over Federal Law and Emergency Abortion Care

The issue of abortion access has been a contentious topic since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade nearly two years ago. The latest legal battle involves federal law potentially requiring hospitals to provide emergency abortion care in states with strict bans on the procedure. However, conservative Supreme Court justices have expressed skepticism over the viability of such a law.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act

The case at hand involves the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals receiving federal funds to provide urgent care for all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. The Biden administration invoked EMTALA after the Supreme Court eliminated the nationwide right to abortion in 2022. The administration argued that a 40-year-old emergency-care law conflicts with a strict state ban in Idaho, which imposes penalties of up to five years in prison on doctors who perform the procedure.

The Ideological Divide of the Court

The sharply divided court appeared to split largely along ideological lines with only the three liberals strongly backing the Biden administration’s view. At issue is whether the federal government can force private hospitals that receive federal funds to violate a state law. Conservative justices, who make up the court majority, pushed back on the Biden administration’s interpretation of the statute. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch expressed concern about the scope of the federal government’s assertion and asked whether it could effectively transform “the regulation of medicine into a federal function” by attaching certain conditions to its funding of hospitals nationwide.

Abortion Access is a Divisive Issue in Lead-up to 2024 Presidential Election

Abortion access remains a galvanizing and divisive issue in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. More than half of voters have said they believe this year’s national and state races will have a “major impact” on abortion access. Respondents were more likely to trust Democrats rather than Republicans to handle the issue, according to polling conducted last month by KFF, a nonpartisan health research organization.

Limiting Access to Abortion Medication

The justices will also decide this term whether to limit access to the widely used abortion medication mifepristone, approved more than 20 years ago by the Food and Drug Administration.

Liberal Justices Highlight Consequences of Abortion Bans

Throughout two hours of argument, the liberal justices repeatedly highlighted the severe consequences that abortion bans have had on reproductive health in the United States. They pointed to harrowing examples of pregnant women facing health emergencies short of death, and the justices suggested those women would not be permitted to obtain an abortion under Idaho’s law.

Conservative Justices Push Back on Biden Administration’s Interpretation of EMTALA

Conservative justices push back on the Biden administration’s interpretation of the EMTALA statute. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. drew attention to the fact that the EMTALA statute includes the term “unborn child” when defining what constitutes a patient. Prelogar said Congress added the language to expand protections for pregnant women to include treating conditions that specifically threatened the health and well-being of the unborn child — not to exclude protecting the women.

Unknown Position of Court’s Middle Justices

It was less clear based on their questions how three of the justices — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who are often in the middle on the bench with a 6-3 conservative majority — would resolve the case, which will be decided before the end of the term in late June or early July.

Battle Over Abortion Access

Since Roe was overturned, dozens of stories have emerged of women with high-risk pregnancy complications being turned away from hospitals in states with abortion bans. While all of the bans include some kind of medical exception for the life or health of the pregnant mother, the language is often vague, leaving doctors unsure of whether they can legally provide an abortion. In many states, the penalty for violating an abortion ban is at least several years in prison.

Federal Emergency-Care Law and Abortion Access

Experts have warned that if the Supreme Court rules against the Biden administration, states could be empowered to pick and choose how to apply the federal emergency-care law well beyond abortion. Lower courts have issued conflicting decisions.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will have far-reaching implications for abortion access in the United States. As the court’s decision is closely watched, voters continue to view abortion access as a crucial issue in upcoming elections.

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