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TPM's Evan McMorris-Santoro provides the background on the Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTLA) and how a radical new bill introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) would carve out an abortion exemption to it that would allow women seeking medical care to be refused treatement.

A bit of backstory: currently, all hospitals in America that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are bound by a 1986 law known as EMTALA to provide emergency care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay or other factors. Hospitals do not have to provide free care to everyone that arrives at their doorstep under EMTALA -- but they do have to stabilize them and provide them with emergency care without factoring in their ability to pay for it or not. If a hospital can't provide the care a patient needs, it is required to transfer that patient to a hospital that can, and the receiving hospital is required to accept that patient.

In the case of an anti-abortion hospital with a patient requiring an emergency abortion, ETMALA would require that hospital to perform it or transfer the patient to someone who can. (The nature of how that procedure works exactly is up in the air, with the ACLU calling on the federal government to state clearly that unwillingness to perform an abortion doesn't qualify as inability under EMTALA. That argument is ongoing, and the government has yet to weigh in.)

Pitts' new bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement under EMTALA, meaning that medical providers who aren't willing to terminate pregnancies wouldn't have to -- nor would they have to facilitate a transfer.

The hospital could literally do nothing at all, pro-choice critics of Pitts' bill say.

"This is really out there," Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America told TPM. "I haven't seen this before."

Crane said she's been a pro-choice advocate "for a long time," yet she's never seen anti-abortion bill as brazenly attacking the health of the mother exemption as Pitts' bill has. NARAL has fired up its lobbying machinery and intends to make the emergency abortion language a key part of its fight against the Pitts bill when it goes before subcommittee in the House next week. [emphasis mine]

It seems step one should be demanding that the government clear up any confusion about "ability" vs. "willingness" of hospitals to perform medically necessary abortions in emergency situations. Pitts' staff responded to critics by saying that "this bill is only preserving the same rights that medical professionals have had for decades." That's not true, according to the legal experts who've read the language--it exempts anti-choice hospitals or providers from providing potentially life-saving care, or ensuring that the patient receive it. Life-saving care, by the way, which is perfectly and absolutely legal.

Again, it's entirely possible this is a feint by the House GOP looking for a bargaining chip on the odious H.R. 3--look what we can do if you don't give us control over abortion coverage in private insurance. But what is entirely clear is that we're in for an all-out, no-holds-barred assault on women for the next two years.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sat Feb 05, 2011 at 09:16 AM PST.

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