Well, this ought to be interesting.
Five women who say they were denied abortions despite grave risks to their lives or their fetuses sued the state of Texas on Monday, apparently the first time that pregnant women themselves have taken legal action against the bans that have shut down access to abortion across the country since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wademe.
The women — two visibly pregnant — plan to tell their stories on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Tuesday. Their often harrowing experiences will put faces to what their 91-page complaint calls “catastrophic harms” to women since the court’s decision in June, which eliminated the constitutional right to abortion after five decades.
Their accounts may resonate with public opinion, which generally supports legalized abortion and does so overwhelmingly when a pregnancy endangers the woman’s life. The lawsuit, backed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, comes as the country grapples with the fallout from overturning Roe, with abortion banned in at least 13 states.
Texas, like most states with bans, allows exceptions when a physician determines there is risk of “substantial” harm to the mother, or in cases of rape or incest, or if the fetus has a fatal diagnosis. Yet the potential for prison sentences of up to 99 years, $100,000 fines and the loss of medical licenses has scared doctors into not providing abortions even in cases where the law would seem to allow them.
The suit asks the court to affirm that physicians can make exceptions, and to clarify under what conditions. But its greater power may be in appealing to public opinion on abortion. Similar lawsuits over exceptions, focusing public attention on stories of women who were denied abortions despite medical dangers, helped build momentum for legalized abortion in heavily Catholic Ireland and in South America.
The women bringing the suit contradict stereotypes about who receives abortions and why. Married, and some with children already, the women rejoiced at their pregnancies, only to discover that their fetuses had no chance of survival — two had no skulls, and two others were threatening the lives of their twins.
Though they faced the risk of hemorrhage or life-threatening infection from carrying those fetuses, the women were told they could not have abortions, the suit says. Some doctors refused even to suggest the option, or to forward medical records to another provider.
The women found themselves furtively crossing state borders to seek medical treatment outside Texas, worried that family and neighbors might report them to state authorities. In some cases, the women became so ill that they were hospitalized. One plaintiff, Amanda Zurawski, was told she was not yet sick enough to receive an abortion, then twice became septic, and was left with so much scar tissue that one of her fallopian tubes is permanently closed.
“You don’t think you’re somebody who’s going to need an abortion, let alone an abortion to save my life,” Zurawski, 35, said. “If anybody reads my story, I don’t care where they are on the political spectrum, very few people would agree there is anything pro-life about this.”
Unlike other suits from abortion rights groups, the Texas suit does not seek to overturn the state bans on abortion. Instead, it asks the court to confirm that Texas law allows physicians to offer abortion if, in their good-faith judgment, the procedure is necessary because the woman has a “physical emergent medical condition” that cannot be treated during pregnancy or that makes continuing the pregnancy unsafe, or the fetus has a condition “where the pregnancy is unlikely to result in the birth of a living child with sustained life.”
The women are not suing the medical providers who denied abortions, and the providers are not named in the suit; in most cases, the women say the providers were doing the best they could, but had their hands tied.
The Texas Medical Association has appealed to state authorities to offer more clarity on what exceptions are allowed. The author of one of the bans wrote to the state medical board in August, concerned that hospitals “may be wrongfully prohibiting or seriously delaying physicians from providing medically appropriate and possibly lifesaving services to patients who have various pregnancy complications.” He underscored that under the exceptions, hospitals had to protect the “mother’s life and major bodily function.”
The lawsuit says the five plaintiffs “represent only the tip of the iceberg,” and that “millions” of people across the country have been “denied dignified treatment as equal human beings.”
As the story notes, it is a reprint of a New York Times article. I don’t know who has what stereotypes about who gets abortions, but none of this surprises me. I’ve been saying all along that it’s just a matter of time before some nice white married lady, like one of these plaintiffs, dies from being unable to get timely medical care as a result of Texas’ anti-abortion law. One of these plaintiffs spent three days in intensive care with sepsis because abortion care was denied to her. No one should have to go through that.
I’m wondering what the state’s defense will be. My best guess is that they will claim that the law is clear as written and that if these women were unlucky enough to have incompetent doctors that’s their problem. The Republicans really don’t want there to be any clear lines about when an abortion is allowed, because the lack of clarity serves their purpose of forcing women to give birth.
Also, these women are going to get smeared, doxxed, threatened, harassed, and so on. Can’t be having them speaking out about their experiences, that’s just not allowed.
I’m not going to be foolish enough to make any predictions here. I will say that if these plaintiffs win, it will have only a marginal effect, in that their situations are relatively rare. The total number of abortions that would be allowed if they win will be minimal – basically, this is a “life/health of the mother” exception. Rape and incest are still not acceptable reasons for an abortion, and of course elective abortions are still criminalized. It would be significant in that the risk of death or serious health consequences would be mitigated, and that’s a big deal, but it will be limited. For now, that’s the best we can do. Axios, NPR, the Trib, Daily Kos, The 19th, the Current, and Slate have more.