Women from across Texas went to a state district court in Austin yesterday to testify in a case that could determine access to certain emergency abortion services in the state.
The Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit against Texas in March on behalf of five women who were denied abortions amid serious pregnancy complications. Eight more women have since joined the suit, as have two physicians.
Olivia Aldridge, who covers healthcare at KUT in Austin, said this is thought to be the first case in which patients are directly suing a state after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the national right to abortion last year.
“In fact, this would also be the first time that this has happened since 1973 during testimony for Roe v. Wade,” she said. “A lot of eyes have also really been on Texas since SB 8 passed in September 2021, because that six-week abortion ban was really the first of its kind among the states.
And Dobbs, of course, triggered more abortion restrictions in other states and in Texas, as well. So now there’s this case brought by 13 women, plus two physicians, where Texas is, again, the first to sort of breach new territory in this area.”
Texas recently passed a law carving out the right to an abortion in cases of ectopic pregnancy or when a patient’s water breaks too early. Aldridge said this case is seeking to expand that right to any case where a doctor feels an emergency abortion is medically necessary.
“Molly Duane, who’s the lead attorney on the Center for Reproductive Rights legal team in this case, spoke to this in her opening remarks yesterday,” Aldridge said. “She said essentially that (the new law) just doesn’t go very far to only specify two conditions that would be cause for an emergency abortion. In fact, she said it’s impossible to draw up a complete list of medical scenarios that should qualify and that that would always result in someone kind of falling through the cracks.”
One of the doctors involved in the suit, Damla Karsan, said the new law is too vague to be useful to OB-GYNs like her.
“She testified yesterday that the exception to this law, as it’s currently written, is vague and considering the penalties if she’s found to have given an abortion that doesn’t qualify for this exception — those penalties can include triple digit fines, serious prison time, the loss of her medical license,” Aldridge said. “She just feels that her hands are tied and she often can’t give people an abortion, even when she considers it the best medical option.
So what the plaintiffs want to establish is a binding interpretation of this exception that allows physicians to exercise their good faith judgment in consultation with the pregnant person. That’s their precise language.”
In the short term, the women suing the state are asking for a temporary injunction of Texas’ abortion ban as it applies to medical emergencies.
“They want that to be in place until this case is completely sorted out,” Aldridge said. “In the meantime, the state’s attorneys are also asking for something. They just want the case to be dismissed outright. They’ve argued that the women involved in this case are incorrectly blaming state law for the fact that they were denied medical abortion care when the decision lay in the hands of their physicians.”
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This case has possible long term implications for what abortion care is available to patients in Texas.
“If Jessica Mangrum, the judge for this hearing, does decide to issue a temporary injunction, that would theoretically give physicians in Texas more leeway to decide what qualifies as a life-threatening condition that warrants an abortion under state law, at least temporarily,” Aldridge said.
“On the other hand, if the plaintiffs are ultimately unsuccessful with this case, it’s possible, some advocates say, that we’ll see more OB-GYNs start to see practicing in Texas as a risky proposition.”
Dr. Judy Levison, the other physician involved in the case and a faculty member at a Houston Medical School, has said that she took a step back from medicine after the Dobbs decision.
“She didn’t feel she could practice in a manner consistent with the ethics of her position,” Aldridge said. “And she says she’s seen this widespread fear and trepidation among her colleagues as well.”