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Congressional Democrats tell Biden to do more on abortion after Ohio woman's arrest

Brittany Watts, center, speaks to a rally of supporters, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Warren, Ohio. A grand jury decided that Watts, who was facing criminal charges for her handling of a home miscarriage, will not be charged. Congressional Democrats are using Watts' case to call for Biden to do more on abortion rights and protection for pregnant patients.
Sue Ogrocki
/
AP
Brittany Watts, center, speaks to a rally of supporters, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Warren, Ohio. A grand jury decided that Watts, who was facing criminal charges for her handling of a home miscarriage, will not be charged. Congressional Democrats are using Watts' case to call for Biden to do more on abortion rights and protection for pregnant patients.

Democratic members of Congress are urging the Biden administration to do more to protect pregnant patients seeking medical treatment from criminal prosecution - a threat they say has intensified in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 2022 decision overturning decades of abortion-rights precedent.

The new letter, spearheaded by the Democratic Women's Caucus, references the case of Brittany Watts, an Ohio woman who faced felony charges after suffering a miscarriage last year.

Hospital officials called police after Watts came in seeking treatment for her pregnancy loss. Watts was investigated and initially charged with abuse of a corpse under state law. The letter notes that a grand jury ultimately declined to move forward with the case, but says "irreparable harm has already been done and we must ensure this never happens to anyone again."

The letter, signed by more than 150 members of Congress, calls on the Biden administration to use federal resources to investigate such cases, and to provide legal and financial support to patients facing the threat of criminal prosecution because of pregnancy outcomes. It also urges Biden administration officials including Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to investigate situations in which healthcare officials may have breached the privacy of pregnant patients.

Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, the DWC's White House liaison, said she was disturbed to see healthcare workers involved in reporting Watts.

"You don't get to pick up the phone, violate a person's HIPAA rights, and then say to this person, 'I'm consoling you with one hand and calling the police to have a person arrested on the other hand,'" Beatty said in an interview with NPR.

The letter describes Watts' experience as "all too common for Black women, who disproportionately experience adverse pregnancy outcomes due to inadequate health care, and disproportionately experience disrespect, abuse, and punitive responses when they seek pregnancy-related care."

In November, Ohio voters approved an amendment protecting abortion rights in the state's constitution. That vote came after a near-total abortion ban took effect in 2022 in response to the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision.

In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, Biden has faced calls from some leading Democrats to do more to protect abortion rights.

The administration has taken several steps, including telling healthcare providers that they must interveneto help pregnant women facing life-threatening complications under the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider a challenge to that interpretation from the state of Idaho.

Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel with the reproductive rights legal group If/When/How, which has endorsed the letter, said a groundswell of public support for Watts was crucial in prompting the grand jury not to move forward with that case.

"Placing external pressure on those systems and calling for investigations of these types of prosecutions actually can have a material impact in stopping them," she said. "These things are going to persist as long as people aren't paying attention. So having the administration's attention on that, I think, can really make a difference."

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.