US government rejects complaint that woman was improperly denied an emergency abortion in Oklahoma

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says an Oklahoma hospital did not violate federal law when doctors told a woman with a nonviable pregnancy to wait in the parking lot until her condition worsened enough to qualify for an abortion under the state's strict ban.

Jaci Statton, 26, was among several women last year who challenged abortion restrictions that went into effect in Republican-led states after the Supreme Court revoked the nationwide right to abortion in 2022.

Rather than join a lawsuit, Statton filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA. The complaint came a little more than a year after Biden's administration informed hospitals that they must provide abortion services if the mother’s life is at risk. At the time, President Joe Biden's administration said EMTALA supersedes state abortion bans that don’t have adequate exceptions for medical emergencies.

The Biden administration’s denial of Statton’s claim is the latest development in the ongoing scrutiny over how to apply EMTALA in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. It also underscores the uphill legal battle reproductive rights advocates when pushing back against state abortion bans.

According to the complaint, Statton learned she was pregnant in early 2023 and soon began experiencing severe pain and nausea. Doctors in Oklahoma eventually told her that she had a partial molar pregnancy, which left untreated could cause hemorrhaging, infection, and even death.

“However, providers told Jaci that they could not provide an abortion until she was actively crashing in front of them or on the verge of a heart attack," the complaint stated. "In the meantime, the best that they could offer was to let Jaci sit in the parking lot so that she would be close to the hospital when her condition further deteriorated.”

Abortion is illegal in almost every case in Oklahoma. However, in November, the state's Supreme Court reiterated in a ruling that the state constitution guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion when necessary to preserve her life.

Ultimately, Statton and her husband traveled out of state to have an emergency abortion rather than wait for her health to deteriorate.

In October, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — which operates under Health and Human Services — informed Statton that its investigation could not “confirm a violation” of the emergency care federal law.

“We appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention,” the letter said.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents Statton, confirmed Friday that her complaint had been denied. The center did not disclose why it waited months to make the denial public. In December, an attorney for the center told The Associated Press that they had did not have any updates that they could release publicly.

“EMTALA was created to protect every person’s right to receive stabilizing treatment for an emergency medical condition no matter which state they live in or what kind of stabilizing care they need,” said Rabia Muqaddam, a senior staff attorney with the center. “It is horrifying that patients in Jaci’s circumstances are being turned away.”

A spokesperson for Health and Human Services did not immediately return an email request for comment.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has lawsuits ongoing in Idaho, Tennessee and Texas. The lawsuits do not seek to overturn the states’ abortion bans, but instead ask the state courts to clarify the circumstances that qualify patients to legally receive an abortion.

The Supreme Court earlier this month allowed Idaho to enforce its strict abortion ban, even in medical emergencies, while a separate legal fight continues. The justices said they would hear arguments in April and put on hold a lower court ruling that had blocked the Idaho law in hospital emergencies, based on a federal lawsuit filed by the Biden administration.

Also this month, a three-judge panel in New Orleans ruled that the administration cannot use EMTALA to require hospitals in Texas to provide abortions for women whose lives are at risk due to pregnancy.