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Opinion Details in a lawsuit against Texas’s abortion ban shock the conscience

Five women filed a lawsuit against Texas on March 6 over the state's near-total abortion ban, saying they were denied abortions despite risks to their lives. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Sara Diggins/Austin American-Statesman via AP/Reuters)
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Five pregnant women and two doctors filed suit in Texas this week claiming that the state’s six-week abortion ban violates the state constitution’s due process and equal protection guarantees. The complaint asks that, at a minimum, the court declare a woman can obtain an abortion when a physician in good faith finds the patient suffers a condition of complication that “poses a risk of infection, bleeding, or otherwise makes continuing a pregnancy unsafe for the pregnant person; a physical medical condition that is exacerbated by pregnancy” that can’t be effectively treated or where “the fetus is unlikely to survive the pregnancy and sustain life after birth.”

Though Texas’s right-wing courts might well reject the suit based on its reading of the Texas constitution, the bracing and enlightening facts set out in the complaint should be mandatory reading for lawmakers who want to strip women of essential health care. Unlike most suits that are brought by advocacy groups, this action has real, live plaintiffs with heart-wrenching personal stories:

Amanda was forced to wait until she was septic to receive abortion care, causing one of her fallopian tubes to become permanently closed. When Lauren M. learned one of her twins was not viable, she was forced to travel out of state for the abortion she needed to save her and her other baby’s life, who is due in several weeks. Lauren H. received a devastating fetal diagnosis two weeks after Roe was overturned, and in the chaos that followed, she was forced to travel to Seattle for an abortion. Pregnant again now, Lauren H. fears that Texas is not safe for her or her family. Anna was forced to fly across multiple states after her water broke, risking that she would go into labor or septic shock on the journey. Ashley had to travel out of state to for an abortion to save the life of one of her twins, and afterward, fearful of documenting Ashley’s abortion, her Texas physician instead described her condition as “vanishing twin syndrome.”

Lest anyone think these are oddball cases, the complaint reminds us that such cases are occurring routinely around the country in states that have banned or severely limited abortion access. The complaint points out that in case after case, the story is essentially the same: Necessary health care is denied; doctors are prevented from treating patients according to long-standing standards of care; and “pervasive fear and uncertainty throughout the medical community regarding the scope of the life and health exceptions have put patients’ lives and physicians’ liberty at grave risk.”

The results, the complaint documents, are devastating to millions of people — not only those who seek to end a pregnancy. Obstetric care is imperiled, for example, as doctors leave states that ban abortion. (Or, in the case of one of the doctors bringing the case, retire because “she felt she could no longer practice medicine the way she was trained and consistent with her ethical obligations as a physician.”)

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Moreover, the ban in Texas comes when its maternal mortality rate, already higher than the national average, is rising. Non-Hispanic Black women are twice as likely as White women to die from pregnancy-related causes. If you deny abortion care, more women, and disproportionately Black women, will die.

Contradictory and vague language in the Texas abortion ban “leaves physicians uncertain whether the treatment decisions they make in good faith, based on their medical judgment, will be respected or will be later disputed.” The law created chaos, leading to denial of care or forcing women to show “hemorrhaging” or “active signs of infection before they will be offered abortions.”

The complaint references a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that documents fear, confusion and unnecessarily delayed or denied treatment as physicians struggle to interpret the law in real time. (“Without further explanation, physicians do not know if, for example, ‘a patient with pulmonary hypertension, for whom we cite a 30-to-50% chance of dying with ongoing pregnancy,’ is sufficiently at risk of death or substantial impairment of a major bodily function to permit abortion.”)

The complaint’s 92 pages bombard the reader with a barrage of evidence — not predictions or opinions, but glaring, unarguable facts. Reading through the excruciating details set out in the complaint, several conclusions become indisputable.

The parade of horribles is precisely what women, physicians and advocates warned would result from zealots’ efforts to control women and their medical care. Sadly, lawmakers were either ignorant about medical issues or, worse, simply did not care. They are responsible for the suffering and deaths that result from these bans. There is simply no way to dictate the specifics of medical treatment in a coherent way from a state capital. Lawmakers don’t have the knowledge or foresight to assume the role of doctor. The complaint lays out just a few of the daunting situations the bans create:

If a pregnant patient is experiencing renal failure, does she have to be on dialysis before a physician may perform an abortion that would otherwise be prohibited by the Ban? If a pregnant patient has a cardiac lesion, does a physician have to wait until she experiences heart failure to intervene? If a pregnant patient has a clogged blood vessel, does a physician have to wait until she experiences chest pain before terminating the pregnancy to prevent pulmonary embolism?”

When judges and lawmakers arrogantly assume the power to dictate who gets what sort of treatment, the results are bound to be calamitous. This is why we have licensed doctors who are held to recognized standards of care — not forced to follow the dictates of ideologues.

The suffering, dehumanization and abuse of women as a result of these bans should shock any decent human being. If any other group of Americans were put through the trauma, uncertainty, risk and expense to obtain appropriate medical care for, say, a heart condition, the howls of protest would be deafening. And yet, it is only pregnant women who are treated as pawns of the state and denied the best care of their doctors. One does not need to make a legal judgment to understand how deeply wrong it is to treat any person in a free society in this way.

Vice President Harris reacted to the suit in a written statement: “The lawsuit includes devastating, first-hand accounts of women’s lives almost lost after they were denied the health care they needed, because of extreme efforts by Republican officials to control women’s bodies.” She added, “Many extremist ‘so-called’ leaders espouse ‘freedom for all,’ while directly attacking the freedom to make one’s own health care decisions.”

Her assessment is spot on — and a reminder that abortion bans are not “pro-life” but barbaric and dangerous.