U.S. Supreme Court will decide if states can ban ER abortions. What does it mean for Ohio?

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether a federal law requiring hospitals to provide emergency treatment overrides states' abortion restrictions.

But what that ruling will mean for Ohioans, who passed abortion protections last year, is less clear.

The federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act or EMTALA, was passed in 1986 to prevent hospitals from turning away patients who needed to be stabilized but couldn't pay. The law applies to any hospital receiving federal funding, such as through Medicare.

More recently, President Joe Biden's administration advised emergency room doctors that they could perform abortions to prevent a pregnant patient's death or serious illness − even if state laws banned abortions in those circumstances.

A handful of states, including Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota, do not have abortion exceptions for pregnant patients' health. State laws, such as one in Texas and Ohio's on-hold abortion ban, allow abortions to prevent "substantial impairment of a major bodily function."

After Biden's guidance, Texas sued the federal government. The feds sued Idaho. The case, which is being debated at the U.S. Supreme Court, underscores the tension between federal and state laws after the top court overturned Roe v. Wade, sending abortion decisions back to state lawmakers and courts.

This is the second significant abortion case the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing this year. Last month, justices heard arguments from a group of anti-abortion doctors trying to roll back access to the widely used abortion drug mifepristone.

What could a decision mean for Ohio?

Any impact on Ohio could be blunted by Issue 1, the constitutional amendment which passed in November and guaranteed access to abortion, contraception and other reproductive decisions.

But some Ohio doctors worry that any chink in the federal law's armor could insert uncertainty and harm emergency room patients nationwide.

"Emergency physicians love EMTALA," said Dr. Laurel Barr, a central Ohio emergency medicine doctor. "It is our protection. We rely on it. If we can't treat pregnant women under EMTALA, then when is it that we can't treat strokes or heart attacks as well?"

Several doctors said Ohio doesn't need more confusion.

“When you make exceptions that don’t make medical sense, it leads to harm," said Amy Burkett, an OB-GYN in Northeast Ohio. Doctors can waste valuable time consulting attorneys rather than saving patients from serious medical conditions.

Even with Issue 1 passing last year, most abortion clinics are still following laws in place before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature has not repealed abortion restrictions.

Attorneys are challenging the state's ban on most abortions and restrictions like a 24-hour waiting period as unconstitutional under the new constitutional language. Judges are currently reviewing those cases.

"There is a false sense of security now that we have the constitutional amendment in place," said Dr. Marcela Azevedo, who campaigned to pass Issue 1. A U.S. Supreme Court decision or federal law change could still trump the abortion protections Ohioans passed last year.

But abortion opponents like Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis and the Center for Christian Virtue President Aaron Baer said the Supreme Court's decision would have little to no impact on Ohio because of the recently passed constitutional amendment.

"It has major implications across the country, but not in Ohio," said Gonidakis, adding that Ohio's abortion laws include exceptions to save the life of the mother and to prevent substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.

The scenario is also rare. Only 95 of the 18,488 abortions performed in Ohio, about 0.5%, happened in hospitals in 2022, according to the most recent Ohio Department of Health data.

"There’s not a lot of abortions that have happened in emergency rooms," Baer said.

USA TODAY's Maureen Groppe contributed to this article.

Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Supreme Court hearing abortion case regarding 1986 law