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By Michelle Goldberg
It’s increasingly clear that it’s not safe to be pregnant in states with total abortion bans. Since the end of Roe v. Wade, there have been a barrage of gutting stories about women in prohibition states denied care for miscarriages or forced to continue nonviable pregnancies. Though some in the anti-abortion movement publicly justify this sort of treatment, others have responded with a combination of denial, deflection and conspiracy theorizing.
Some activists have blamed the pro-choice movement for spooking doctors into not intervening when pregnancies go horribly wrong. “Abortion advocates are spreading the dangerous lie that lifesaving care is not or may not be permitted in these states, leading to provider confusion and poor outcomes for women,” said a report by the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute.
Others have suggested that doctors are deliberately refusing miscarriage treatment, apparently to make anti-abortion laws look bad. “What we’re seeing, I fear, is doctors with an agenda saying, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do’ when, in fact, they do,” the president of Ohio Right to Life said last year.
A new filing in a Texas lawsuit demolishes these arguments. In March, five women represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights sued Texas after enduring medical nightmares when they were refused abortions for pregnancies that had gone awry. Since then, the Center for Reproductive Rights says it has heard from dozens of women in Texas with similar accounts. And this week, eight more women, each with her own harrowing story, joined the suit, which asks a state district court to clarify the scope of emergency medical exceptions to Texas’ abortion ban.
There’s one woman among the new plaintiffs who recounted terrible mistreatment in a religiously affiliated hospital as she waited to either go into labor or get sick enough to merit an abortion. But in most of these cases, the women described their doctors as struggling to do the right thing. The problem was the law, not the doctors’ misunderstanding of it.
Elizabeth Weller, for example, was hospitalized after her water broke at 19 weeks. She was given antibiotics and, according to the suit, instructed to pray. Her OB/GYN concluded that, without an abortion, she risked an infection and could lose her uterus or even her life. The hospital administration, however, refused to clear the procedure because the antibiotics made such an infection less likely.
“Elizabeth was told that she could either discontinue antibiotics and stay in the hospital to wait to develop an infection and get sicker; or she could go home and look out for signs of infection,” said the filing. She went home. “With every passing day, I felt the state’s intentional cruelty,” Weller said during a news conference on Monday. “My baby would not survive and my life didn’t matter.” Her doctor, she said, called around trying to find another hospital that would treat her. “All of those hospitals told my doctor that they have patients just like me in those situations and they can’t touch them,” she said.
Two of the women in the original suit, Lauren Miller and Ashley Brandt, had been pregnant with twins. Each discovered that one of her twins had severe abnormalities and wouldn’t survive. In both cases, only by aborting the doomed twin could they protect the life of the viable one, as well as their own health.
Texas doctors can do little for women in this excruciating situation. Given a state law that lets people sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, many are fearful even to counsel their patients about out-of-state options. “In every interaction with their medical team in Texas, Lauren M. and her husband felt confused and frustrated and could not get direct answers,” says the lawsuit. Both Miller and her doctors were afraid to even utter the word “abortion.”
Now Miller’s obstetrician, Austin Dennard, has joined the lawsuit, not as a doctor but as a patient. Shortly before Miller’s devastating diagnosis, Dennard had been pregnant with what she hoped would be her third child when she learned that the fetus had anencephaly, giving it no chance of survival. She left the state for an abortion, as Miller would later do. Seeing Miller endure the same ordeal that she had, and then watching her go public about it, inspired Dennard to do so as well, despite fears about what it could mean for her career.
“This is not some isolated incident of one doctor misunderstanding the law,” said Molly Duane of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “This is a widespread, pervasive fear throughout the medical community.”
If the anti-abortion movement were interested in allaying this fear, it might consider joining this suit, or filing one of its own. Perhaps needless to say, that hasn’t happened.
One of the new plaintiffs in the suit, a mother of four named Samantha Casiano, was forced to carry to term a fetus that she knew would not survive after birth, spending months fund-raising for the inevitable funeral. Reporting on Casiano’s case in April, NPR spoke to Amy O’Donnell of Texas Alliance for Life. O’Donnell was at least honest. She doesn’t believe in exemptions for cases like Casiano’s. “I do believe the Texas laws are working as designed,” she said.
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