Health Care

Abortion-rights group challenges laws in three states on behalf of women denied care

A key abortion-rights group filed legal complaints in Tennessee, Idaho and Oklahoma on behalf of women denied medically necessary abortion care despite facing severe pregnancy complications.

The lawsuits filed Tuesday by the Center for Reproductive Rights are not challenging the states’ abortion bans, but instead are aimed at clarifying the “medical emergency” exceptions to protect the health or life of the mother. 

The center’s effort expands on a similar complaint the group filed in Texas earlier this year, brought on behalf of 13 women denied abortion care and two physicians. 

In early August, a Texas judge ruled in favor of the women and said that in cases of dangerous or complicated pregnancies, doctors must be allowed to use their “good faith judgment” to provide abortion care. But the state immediately appealed the ruling, and it was put on hold. 

“It is clear that in filing that lawsuit in Texas, it hit the tip of a very large iceberg,” said Nancy Northup, the center’s president and CEO.

The group argues the language of the exemptions are narrow and confusing and put both patients and their providers at risk. Doctors risk losing their licenses and face potential prison time for defying the bans, while patients are harmed by denial or delays in receiving needed abortions.

“The exceptions use nonmedical terminology that doctors do not know how to interpret and apply,” said Marc Hearron, the center’s senior counsel. “We are seeking to put an end to this chaos and give doctors clarity on when they can provide abortion care.”

For example, Idaho’s abortion ban includes an exception only to prevent the death of a pregnant person, but not to preserve their health or for a fatal fetal diagnosis. There is no indication of how close to death a person must be in order for a doctor to be able to intervene. 

“This means women have to continue pregnancies even if they will inevitably result in a stillbirth baby with such devastating conditions that it has no realistic chance of life for longer than a few minutes or hours,” Hearron said.

Tennessee’s abortion ban includes an exception to prevent the death of pregnant people or to prevent serious and “irreversible” damage to their health, but it does not specify any exceptions for any fetal conditions. 

The complaints filed Tuesday feature testimony from women about the severe physical and mental trauma they endured as a result of the abortion bans in their respective states. Some were forced to continue carrying their pregnancies even though the fetus would not survive.

Nicole Blackmon, lead plaintiff in the Tennessee case, told reporters she was forced to carry a nonviable pregnancy.

An ultrasound at 15 weeks of pregnancy showed the fetus’s stomach and other organs were developing outside of its abdomen. Further tests confirmed a lethal diagnosis, but doctors in the state wouldn’t perform an abortion, and she did not have the resources to travel out of state.

As she developed life-threatening symptoms of preeclampsia including blurred vision and sharp abdominal pain, Blackmon said she ended up giving birth to a stillborn baby at 31 weeks.

“Something good must come out of my pain. That’s why I’m joining this case,” Blackmon said.

In Oklahoma, the group filed a complaint with the federal Department of Health and Human Services under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.

The complaint alleges the Oklahoma University Medical Center refused to perform an abortion on Jaci Statton, despite her having a nonviable pregnancy condition that risked severe bleeding, preeclampsia and death.

The hospital instead transferred her to Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, which also refused to treat her. She was told to either go home or wait in the parking lot until her condition deteriorated to where she was at serious risk of death. 

Statton and her husband decided to leave, and they made a three-hour drive to Wichita, Kan., where she was able to obtain an abortion.

Tags abortion abortion bans Center for Reproductive Rights