HHS says Hospitals that Denied Emergency Abortion Broke the Law

May 1, 2023

Documents revealed Monday that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has accused two hospitals of breaking the law by not providing emergency abortion services to a woman whose life was in jeopardy.

The HHS documents obtained by the Associate Press have emerged as healthcare providers nationwide are struggling to balance new abortion restrictions that have emerged in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade with a federal mandate to provide abortion services when a woman’s life is at risk.

The HHS investigation centers on two hospitals: Freeman Health System in Joplin, Missouri, and University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas. In August, each refused to provide an abortion to a Missouri woman whose water broke early, 17 weeks into her pregnancy. Doctors at both hospitals told Joplin resident Mylissa Farmer that her fetus would not survive, her amniotic fluid had emptied and that she was at risk for serious infection or losing her uterus. However, doctors at neither hospital would not terminate the pregnancy because a fetal heartbeat was still detectable.

Farmer ended up traveling to Illinois to undergo an abortion.

“It was dehumanizing. It was terrifying. It was horrible not to get the care to save your life,” she said of her experience. “I felt like I was responsible to do something, to say something, to not have this happen again to another woman. It was bad enough to be so powerless”

Her complaints led to the first of numerous federal investigations following women being turned away from hospitals amid dangerous pregnancy complaints.

Since the overturning of Roe, at least 13 states have implemented abortion bans that theoretically allow exceptions in cases of medical emergency. But at least one lawsuit—brought about in Texas—has asserted that the state law “contains conflicting language across the different sections regarding physician discretion and intent. This leaves physicians uncertain whether the treatment decisions they make in good faith, based on their medical judgment, will be respected or will be later disputed.”

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra remarked on the investigation into Farmer’s pregnancy complications, saying, “We want her, and every patient out there like her, to know that we will do everything we can to protect their lives and health, and to investigate and enforce the law to the fullest extent of our legal authority, in accordance with orders from the courts.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency overseeing the Farmer investigation, has not announced any fines or other penalties against the two hospitals. It did, however, send them notices warning that they were in violation of the law and asking them to correct the problems that led to Farmer being turned away. Federal Medicare investigators will follow up with the hospitals before closing the case.

PHOTO: Hubert H. Humphrey Building, Washington DC, home of HHS

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