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Texas judge blocks enforcement of Biden emergency abortion guidance

The ruling means hospitals in Texas cannot provide emergency abortions or use a 1986 law as a defense against prosecution.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its guidance requiring hospitals to provide emergency abortions to women despite state laws banning the procedure.

U.S. District Court Judge James Wesley Hendrix in Lubbock granted a preliminary injunction in his 67-page opinion released late Tuesday. Hendrix, a Donald Trump appointee, said that the administration's interpretation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA, is wrong and harms the sovereign interests of the state of Texas.

EMTALA is a 1986 law that requires hospitals to provide medical screenings and stabilizing care if a patient is suffering an emergency medical condition. 

As a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services to safeguard access to abortion by issuing the guidance.

The guidance sent out to hospitals across the country by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told physicians and staff they had the legal authority to provide an abortion if a patient is showing signs of a life-threatening condition such as an ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage. 

“Nothing in the record suggests that EMTALA has ever been interpreted and applied to supersede state laws governing the permissibility of abortions in medical emergencies,” wrote Hendrix. “Because the Guidance constitutes an agency assertion that federal law preempts state law, Texas has shown an injury in fact.” 

Citing the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision in Dobb, Hendrix said the states now have the authority to regulate abortion. Because the emergency abortion guidance would require Texas physicians to violate state law, the judge ruled the state is entitled to an injunction.

While Hendrix declined to block the guidance nationwide, the injunction halts enforcement within Texas or against members of the Christian Medical and Dental Association and American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the ruling in a post on Twitter, calling it “another win” against the Biden administration.

“A win for mothers, babies and the Texas healthcare industry,” Paxton wrote. 

Paxton, in the underlying lawsuit against the Biden administration, argued that the president and HHS acted outside of their authority by issuing the guidance.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the ruling wrong and vowed to continue fighting for reproductive care. 

“Congress must listen to the will of the American people and pass a law restoring the protections of Roe v. Wade,” Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “That is ultimately the only way right now to secure a woman’s right to choose, but the president will continue to take meaningful action now to protect women’s access to reproductive health care.”

The Biden administration has not indicated what it plans to do next or if it will appeal Hendrix’s ruling.

The ruling comes a day before Texas’ trigger law banning abortion goes into effect. House Bill 1280 takes effect 30 days after the formal entry of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Dobbs, overturning nearly 50 years of a federal right to abortion. The law does provide exceptions for situations in which the life of the pregnant person is at risk.

While the trigger law is set to take effect Thursday, abortion providers and rights groups have already ceased offering or aiding someone in getting the procedure out of fear of being prosecuted under a 1925 law banning abortion. The Texas Supreme Court revived the law after a lower court judge blocked it from being enforced.

Abortion funds have also continued litigating against the state to provide services to Texas residents seeking to travel out of the state to get the procedure. The pro-abortion rights groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday to enjoin the state from enforcing its laws against them, claiming the restrictions violate their First Amendment rights to speak, donate money and associate freely.

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