Last year, Elizabeth Weller, 27, and her husband decided they were ready to do something they’ve been putting on hold: having their first child.
“We actually went to Disney World that December,” Weller said. “We both kind of got baby fever on that trip.”
She got pregnant relatively quickly. The Kingwood couple started a baby registry and discussed colors to paint the nursery. Weller remembered going for a check up around 17 weeks in her second trimester.
“They told me everything was on track, everything was looking great,” Weller said. “(The baby) had all her fingers, all her toes, everything was where it was supposed to be.”
But a few weeks later in May, one day after celebrating Mother’s Day, something unexpected happened. Weller felt a bit nauseous and decided to lay down.
“When I got out of the bed, this gush of fluid burst out of me,” Weller said. “It was like a balloon of water popped inside of your pants and when I saw that I just screamed at the top of my lungs because I knew what it meant.”
Weller was experiencing Preterm Premature Rupture of Membranes, according to her medical records. PPROM affects around 2 to 3 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. This pregnancy complication means her water broke before she went into labor. She was only 19 weeks along. Pregnancy normally lasts 40 weeks.
At the hospital, Weller was faced with the choice to continue the pregnancy given the high likelihood of her baby not surviving childbirth or being born with deformities. On top of that, there was a risk to her own health. She faced increased risk of infection, which could become life-threatening, and possibly impact future fertility.
“It was a very very hard decision for us,” Weller said. “We knew that our baby wasn’t going to survive in either decision. In one of those decisions, it meant that I could potentially lose my uterus and any future chances of getting pregnant again or I could lose my life.”
After careful consideration, Weller opted to end the pregnancy. However, Senate Bill 8 was in effect in Texas, which restricts abortion around six weeks of pregnancy. Since then, all abortion in Texas has become illegal due to the trigger law that went into effect after The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.
There is an exception to the ban: a pregnancy “that places the female at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”
When she requested an abortion, Weller said hospital administrators refused the procedure because her infection was not severe enough to meet that legal standard, although it could likely soon be.
Fifteen women, including Weller, and two physicians have filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and the Texas Medical Board, asking them to clarify in what situations an abortion is legal.
The lawsuit was first filed in March. More recently, 8 additional women joined as plaintiffs after hearing about the ongoing legal dispute.
These women who faced pregnancy complications say that they were denied medical care or experienced significant delays even though their pregnancy complications should have qualified them for the exception under Texas’ abortion laws.
Both the Office of Attorney General and Texas Medical Board failed to respond to interview requests or a list of questions for this story.
Weller ended up going home for the next three days. She was constantly vomiting, leaking amniotic fluid and experiencing abdominal pain. The infection got worse, until she started to see a yellow, foul-smelling discharge.
“It was a torture,” Weller said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody who has to go through pregnancy.”
The consequences of misinterpreting the law are high — 99 years in prison, severe financial penalties or loss of medical license. Nick Kabat, one of the attorneys with the Center for Reproductive Rights representing the plaintiffs, said that has instilled a sense of fear in hospitals administrators and physicians, causing some to err on the side of caution.
The lawsuit requests the state to specify that the exception includes people with pregnancy complications like PPROM or pre-existing conditions that are exacerbated by pregnancy, such as breast cancer, acute leukemia and sickle cell disease.
“This is not an attempt to try to create a list of conditions that you can write out,” Kabat said. “Health care providers, they’ll tell you time and again, it’s impossible. But here are some broad categories that at a minimum will qualify that capture a large part of pregnancy complications. We think this is going to provide tremendous certainty to doctors.”
He said the exception should also include situations when the baby has little or no chance of survival.
Across the country, physicians in states with restrictive new abortion laws have reported delaying abortions they consider medically necessary until a patient’s condition worsens, according to an anonymous survey of 50 health care providers conducted by researchers at UT Austin.
“That’s just not how other areas of healthcare work,” said Kari White, one of the authors. “We want to try to intervene before something becomes an emergency and prevent an emergency from taking place.”
Elizabeth Weller recovered from the abortion she was eventually granted, but the mental toll has been harder to heal from.
She and her husband still want kids, but she carries a lingering fear at the thought of getting pregnant again in Texas.
“You don’t escape from this type of traumatic event and think, ‘okay, let’s try again,’ Weller said. “Because what if this happens again? Am I going to get the same type of treatment?”