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In a post-Roe era, it’s about supporting — not reporting

Medical ethicist Katie Watson offers guidance for emergency department clinicians facing ethical and legal challenges from treating abortion patients

CHICAGO --- Emergency department physicians have long navigated challenging ethical and legal situations to care for “anyone, with anything, at any time,” and the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act has required them to do so since 1986.

But in a post-Roe world in which abortion is criminalized, what kind of ethical and legal obligations might these clinicians face for caring for patients who come in with complications from their self-managed abortions?

That is the question asked and answered by Northwestern University’s Katie Watson, JD, and fellow co-authors in a Perspective essay in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that was published Sept. 3. The piece is titled, “Supporting, not reporting: Emergency department ethics in a post-Roe era.”

Watson is an associate professor of medical education, medical social sciences and obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. To schedule an interview with her about the NEJM piece or general legal and ethical questions about abortion in a post-Roe reality, contact Kristin Samuelson at

“The new abortion bans are confusing, and I wanted to offer emergency room personnel the guidance and support they need to not betray patients and violate HIPAA,” said Watson, explaining the motivation behind the NEJM perspective. “Also, pregnant people in restricted states will self-manage abortions, and the abortion pill plus the internet mean that will look very different than it did before Roe.” 

To build trust, ‘patient confidentiality and privacy is foundational’

The Perspective essay discusses the myriad reasons a pregnant individual may come to the emergency room after attempting a self-managed abortion at home and explains how important it is for emergency department clinicians to build trust with patients who may feel embarrassed or afraid because they present with problems stemming from stigmatized or potentially illegal actions. 

“To ensure that vulnerable patients will be honest and forthcoming with clinicians, especially those they are meeting for the first time, the ethical and legal obligation to respect patient confidentiality and privacy is foundational,” the authors of the NEJM perspective wrote.

“The ethical and legal obligations related to confidentiality, privacy and duty of care that emergency department staff embrace apply to patients who have had, or attempted to have, an abortion — which we believe is especially urgent to affirm, now that the right to abortion is no longer protected by Roe v. Wade.”

One way to do that, the perspective explains, is through a harm-reduction approach, such as beginning interactions with patients who may have used abortion medications by saying, “You are safe here, and my only concern is your health. The medical care you need is the same whether you’re having a spontaneous miscarriage, or you took pills to end your pregnancy.”

Watson is a medical ethicist, reproductive health expert, constitutional scholar and author of Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion.