The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One month in, abortion bans are hell on Earth

Women in agony. Doctors afraid of easing their pain. Is this the post-Roe America antiabortion activists envisioned?

Demonstrators celebrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade outside the Supreme Court in June. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A woman in Louisiana was 16 weeks pregnant when her water broke recently. Sixteen-week fetuses are not viable, or “not compatible with life,” in medical parlance. They are the size of a small avocado. There is no medicine, no magic, no prayer in the known world that could allow such a fetus to survive, no matter how desperately the mother may have wished differently. The woman’s doctor suggested ending the pregnancy via a dilation and evacuation rather than subjecting her patient to the anguish of a pointless labor, according to an affidavit the doctor filed in court, as reported by the Advocate.

But attorneys advised against the procedure. A dilation and evacuation is a procedure used for abortions, after all, and abortions at that stage of pregnancy were now banned in the state of Louisiana. So the woman was forced to deliver the baby she knew would not survive, and as she did so, she was screaming. “Not from pain,” the doctor wrote, “but from the emotional trauma she was experiencing.”

And so I ask the antiabortion activists who spent the past nearly 50 years praying for the end of Roe v. Wade: Is this what you wanted?

I am speaking to the ones who wept with joy outside of the Supreme Court, the ones who said they wanted the whole country to realize that not only should abortion be illegal, but it should also be unfathomable. Is this the utopia you fathomed? A grieving woman in stirrups, forced to expel her dearest wish from her body while she cried out in agony?

It has been one month since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling came down from the Supreme Court, and the stories of how it has landed in the world of maternal health have revealed chaos and cruelty: pregnant women forced to cramp and bleed for days on end, long after heartbeats disappeared; doctors paralyzed into inaction, afraid that if they delivered what they knew to be the best medical care, they would face legal repercussions; and pharmacists unwilling to fill prescriptions for drugs that ease miscarriages, because they are the same drugs used for abortions.

A Texas woman learned her fetus no longer had a heartbeat but was told that she was now required to wait for a confirmation ultrasound before she could be given any medical attention. For the next two weeks, she carried the dead fetus in her body. She told The Washington Post that she felt “like a walking coffin.”

Another Texas woman asked for an abortion after miscarrying one of her twins at 15 weeks and learning the remaining pregnancy made her susceptible to life-threatening infection, according to the New York Times. She was told her life wasn’t endangered enough yet, that she had to be closer to death to receive the abortion she’d asked for. When she returned to the hospital weeks later, she was suffering from sepsis and an acute kidney injury. Her body and soul sufficiently battered, she was allowed to end her pregnancy.

Again, I ask the activists: Is this the love you imagined when you waved your protest signs reading “love them both”? When you explained that your opposition to abortion was not only about saving fetuses but also about protecting women?

Is this what you wanted?

The president of Texas Right to Life, John Seago, told the New York Times that, no, medical professionals balking at treating miscarriages or dying women isn’t what he’d wanted. In situations where the health of the mother is in jeopardy “he acknowledged that such delays could cause medical complications for women,” according to the Times, “but said ‘severe’ complications could legally be treated immediately.” Miscarriage patients weren’t meant to be targeted by these laws, Seago said. He attributed situations like the ones mentioned above to “a breakdown in communication of the law, not the law itself.”

But the laws — Texas’s original six-week ban and the trigger law that went into effect after Dobbs — contain no special provisions for treating miscarriages. They do not specify how “severe” a complication must be before an abortion would at last be considered a lifesaving procedure. It is unclear how lawyers, much less doctors, are supposed to know what actions they are allowed to take, and on whom.

However you might have felt about these antiabortion laws’ intent, you cannot deny that there is a catastrophic coldheartedness in their effect. There is no mercy at the margins, only the blunt-force instrument of trigger laws so intent on saving fetuses that the women carrying them are left suffering or dying. There is no nuance in the ways these laws were written, no curiosity in the ways they were conceptualized, no forethought in the way they were enacted.

There appears to be no desire to understand how women’s bodies work, or how abortions are actually performed, or who might get trapped in the expansive net of this new justice. Abruptly, access to abortion ended, and while antiabortion advocates were still congratulating themselves in church, women were fighting for their lives and sanity in hospitals.

Part of the issue, I think, is that many antiabortion activists think of an “abortion” as a murderous procedure that a bad woman has when she wants to kill her baby.

But a woman who takes medication to end an ectopic pregnancy — a life-threatening condition in which an embryo has implanted outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes — is having an abortion. A patient who has undergone in vitro fertilization — and whose doctor suggests reducing her resulting embryos from three to two to improve maternal and fetal health — that reduction would be an abortion. An expectant mother who learns she will labor to birth a baby who will die minutes after birth and wants to spare her child the pain? That is an abortion.

The stories of the past month are the stories of what abortion actually means and the stories of what happens when that access is taken away. It is exactly what antiabortion activists asked for. But I hope to God it’s not what any of them wanted.