One woman could barely get words out through her tears. Another ran to the restroom as soon as she was done, wordless, wretched sobs wracking her tiny body. A third threw up on the witness stand.
These are believed to be the first women in the country since 1973 to testify in court about the impacts of a state abortion ban on their pregnancies. They almost certainly won’t be the last.
Speaking to a packed Travis County courtroom Wednesday, three women detailed devastating pregnancy losses and said medically necessary care was delayed or denied due to their doctors’ confusion over Texas’ abortion laws.
They’re challenging a clause in the state’s abortion ban that says a doctor can perform an abortion only if they believe the patient has “a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy” that puts the patient “at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”
Doctors have reported delaying necessary pregnancy care for fear of violating the law, which allows doctors to be punished by up to 99 years in prison, a $100,000 fine and the loss of their medical license. The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights, asks a judge to temporarily block the law from applying to medically necessary abortions and ultimately clarify when a medical emergency justifies an abortion.
Texas is asking District Judge Jessica Mangrum to dismiss the case, arguing these women have only their doctors to blame for any disruptions to their care.
At the end of each tearful testimony, lawyers for the state asked the women the same questions: Did Attorney General Ken Paxton tell you you couldn’t get an abortion? Did anyone, working in any capacity for the state, tell you you couldn’t get an abortion?
Over the past few decades, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the attorney general’s office have found themselves in a courtroom just like this one countless times, arguing over the legality of Texas’ abortion laws. Historically, abortion providers were named on the lawsuits and testified on the stand, in an effort to spare the women most impacted by these laws from the pain of public testimony.
But there are no more abortion clinics in Texas. These women took the stand Wednesday because there is no one else left to speak for them.
At a press conference after the hearing, Molly Duane, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said it was difficult to have to walk these women through the worst moments of their lives, but “they did it to hold the state of Texas accountable.”
“As a lawyer, you generally don’t want to cry during work but it was hard not to,” Duane told The Texas Tribune afterward. “It helps people understand how abortion actually is health care. Because I can say it, and doctors can say it, but when these women say it, people can see themselves.”
For the women who took the stand, reliving their experiences for the sake of a courtroom full of people was deeply painful. They stood together after the hearing, comforting each other and rubbing each others’ backs, leaning on their partners and each other for support.
“I was horrified by how willing the cross examination was to ask over and over again about the most horrific thing that’s ever happened to me, seemingly with nothing but callousness,” Zurawski said after the hearing. “I survived sepsis, and I don’t think that today was much less traumatic.”
During the most recent regular legislative session, Texas passed a law that provided some additional protections for doctors who perform abortions in cases of ectopic pregnancies and previable premature rupture of membranes, both of which can be fatal if left untreated. The law goes into effect Sept. 1.
Assistant Attorney General Amy Pletscher said while these women’s stories are “indisputably tragic,” they do not warrant a judge taking steps to modify the laws.
“Any future harm is purely hypothetical and therefore does not warrant injunctive relief,” Pletscher told the judge. “Given the nature of plaintiffs’ past experiences, it is understandable that they are seeking to place blame, but the blame directed at defendants is misplaced. Rather, plaintiffs sustained their alleged injuries as a direct result of their own medical providers failing them.”
Standing before the judge Wednesday, Duane said the state has long argued that clinics do not have standing to challenge abortion law and claimed it is unlawful to challenge abortion laws before they go into effect. But now that the Center for Reproductive Rights has brought a suit with plaintiffs who are directly harmed as a result of the trigger law, the state still says there are no grounds for a suit.
“It begs the question: Does the state think that the only person who would have standing to challenge an abortion law is a woman who comes to court with amniotic fluid or blood dripping down her leg?”
See here for the previous update on the lawsuit, and here for more on that one little “loosening” law, which wouldn’t have helped any of these women had it been in effect. This suit isn’t about blocking the full extent of the new abortion restrictions, just to clarify what the exceptions for the life of the mother mean. And of course the state’s entire defense is basically “sucks to be you, get a better doctor”. I do think the plaintiffs will get their injunction, but once it goes to appeals then it’s anyone’s guess. CBS News, ABC News, the Chron and Daily Kos have more.