“The women standing up today survived, but it is only a matter of time before someone does not,” said one advocate.
With reports of pregnant patients being denied crucial abortion care mounting over the past year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and stripped millions of Americans of their bodily autonomy, the Center for Reproductive Rights on Tuesday filed legal actions in three states where doctors have refused to provide abortions even in emergency situations—hoping to expose how providers and patients alike are being harmed by abortion bans.
The group filed legal challenges against abortion bans in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Idaho—which all ban abortion care in nearly all circumstances—on behalf of women who were denied or delayed in receiving care.
The lawsuits come six months after CRR sued then-Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton over the state’s six-week abortion ban, which allows any private citizen to take legal action against someone for helping a pregnant person to obtain an abortion.
Marc Hearron, senior counsel at CRR, told The Washington Post that the stories of the five women the group represented in Texas are “the tip of the iceberg” and that pregnant patients all over the country are being dangerously denied abortions, even when it is considered the standard of care for specific medical emergencies they and their fetuses are facing.
“The Supreme Court’s unwarranted reversal of Roe v. Wade has led repeatedly, in multiple states, to women being denied abortion care when they face serious complications in their pregnancies,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of CRR. “No one should have to be at death’s door to receive essential healthcare, but that is exactly what happens when doctors are forced to practice medicine under threat of imprisonment.”
The group is representing eight women and four obstetrician-gynecologists in the three states; some of the patients, including Nicole Blackmon of Tennessee, were forced to carry their pregnancies to term even though there was no chance their fetuses would survive.
Blackmon found out from an ultrasound at 15 weeks of pregnancy that her fetus’ organs were developing outside its body and that it was showing signs of developing limb body wall complex (LBWC), a rare condition that includes several fetal anomalies.
Her doctors told her they could not perform an abortion, even though academic studies have shown detection of LBWC necessitates the termination of a pregnancy.
Traveling out of state to obtain care was not financially feasible, Blackmon told the Post, so instead, as her own health deteriorated with the development of preeclampsia, she carried the pregnancy until two months before her due date, when she delivered a stillborn baby.
“We had been through so much we couldn’t bear to see or hold him,” Blackmon said in a virtual press conference on Tuesday with the other plaintiffs and CRR officials. “Why won’t Tennessee politicians allow people to have abortions in terrible situations like mine? Something good must come out of my pain. That’s why I’m joining this case. What we went through was torture that no one else should ever have to face.”
Dr. Emily Corrigan, an emergency obstetrician who joined the lawsuit in Idaho, said in the press conference that the state’s laws have forced at least 19 reproductive healthcare providers to leave the state in the past year as well as five out of nine maternal-fetal medicine specialists, who treat patients with high-risk pregnancies.
“Our out-of-state recruitment has completely dried up meaning that every one of us that leaves or retires is now irreplaceable,” said Corrigan.
Idaho’s law includes language allowing physicians to perform an abortion if it is “necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman,” but as Corrigan said, the law was “not written using medical terminology.”
Providers are avoiding working in the state due to “widespread confusion in the medical community in Idaho about in which circumstances abortion care is legal,” she said. “I regularly see patients that have been denied emergency medical care at other hospitals in this state… Any doctor found to have broken these laws, including me, is subject to 2-5 years in prison, the loss of their medical license, and civil liability and fines amounting to at least $20,000 for each violation.”
“Because of the confusion and steep penalties physicians across the state of Idaho have felt compelled to consult with lawyers, hospital administrators, order additional tests, and delay or deny standard healthcare to pregnant patients,” she added.
The case of a plaintiff in Oklahoma, where an abortion ban includes similar language to protect the life of a pregnant patient, illustrates the danger caused by such so-called “exceptions.”
As Common Dreams reported in April, Jaci Statton developed a cancerous molar pregnancy that caused her to bleed heavily and put her at risk for more severe hemorrhaging, kidney and liver failure, stroke, and potentially death, but doctors at three different hospitals told her they could not provide abortion care despite the law’s exception.
She was told to wait in a hospital parking lot until she was “crashing,” at which point providers would be able to terminate the pregnancy.
“No one ever thinks they need an abortion, but I am living proof that abortion is healthcare,” said Statton. “It’s not safe to be pregnant in Oklahoma. With this complaint, I want to make sure that no one else has to suffer the way I did.”
CRR said it hopes to ultimately ensure pregnant people facing medical emergencies can access care in the three states and obtain “clarity on what situations qualify under the ‘medical emergency’ exceptions.”
With these new legal actions, we're seeking to ensure that pregnant people in dire situations can access abortion care in these states, and that doctors are given clarity on what situations qualify under the “medical emergency” exceptions in their states’ extreme abortion bans.— Center for Reproductive Rights (@ReproRights) September 12, 2023
Temple University law professor Rachel Rebouché toldthe Post that cases like Blackmon’s, Statton’s, and several others across the country have “changed a lot of people’s minds” about the right to abortion care, with a growing number of Americans supporting the right at any stage of pregnancy.
“Abortion bans across the nation are exposing pregnant people to risks of death, illness, and injury, including loss of fertility,” said Northrup. “The women standing up today survived, but it is only a matter of time before someone does not.”
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