December 6, 2023

Unions representing healthcare workers are executing plans to help workers who may run afoul of state abortion laws.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling last month that ended the federal right to abortion access and cleared the way for restrictive state laws, healthcare workers are anxious that treatment choices they make with patients could put them in legal jeopardy.

Abortion laws are swiftly changing in aftermath of the decision. Caregivers could face criminal charges or lose their licenses for providing services a state may deem an abortion or for referring patients to abortion providers in other states, said Madelyn Grant, a criminal attorney at Friedman and Nemecek.

The 22,000-member Committee of Interns and Residents began formulating plans to protect its doctors immediately after Politico published a draft of the court’s ruling in May, said Dr. Taylor Walker, a third-year family medicine resident at Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston and regional vice president of the union.

The union formed an abortion access task force to lobby against restrictive laws, protect residents’ rights to receive training on medical abortions and seek out pro-abortion-rights attorneys and legal organizations focused on protecting providers, Walker said.

“A resident union is really the avenue to make that injustice known and demand we come up with solutions,” said Walker, whose personal experience terminating a pregnancy inspired her to become an abortion provider.

Employers have a responsibility to protect workers, and National Nurses United will drive that point home, said Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-president of the 175,000-member labor organization.

“We’re planning on using all of the tools that are available to us through collective bargaining rights to hold our employers accountable and through potential changes to labor law through our direct action,” Burger said.

Healthcare worker unions will play a key role, said John August, program director of the Healthcare Labor Relations and Partners Program at Cornell University. “Doctors’ unions and other healthcare professional unions are going to be really important advocates for the perspective of the role of healthcare in the whole abortion debate,” he said.

Laws differ by state and are still being interpreted, Grant said. In Ohio, for instance, Attorney General Dave Yost (R) said the highly publicized case of a 10-year-old girl who went to Indiana for an abortion would have fallen under an exemption to the state’s “heartbeat law.”

Grant isn’t so sure. “That example shows you how open to interpretation these medical caveats are,” she said. “It’s very unclear what [physicians] are allowed to do, specifically with emergency exceptions.” Until the matter is tested in the courts, predicting the outcome is difficult, she said.

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