Women sue states, HHS after abortion bans endanger their lives

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Left: Nicole Blackmon. Right: Jennifer Adkins. (Images via Center for Reproductive Rights/Splash Cinema.)

Eight women with dangerous and potentially life-threatening pregnancy complications forced to endure extreme hardships — including giving birth to a stillborn baby, waiting in a hospital parking lot until a medical emergency reached near-death levels, and leaving their home states to obtain abortion care for non-viable pregnancies — have filed three separate legal complaints over three states’ harsh abortion bans.

The women and four OB-GYNs filed lawsuits against the states of Idaho and Tennessee, as well as an administrative complaint against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over the actions of an Oklahoma hospital, according to a press release from the Center for Reproductive Rights. All three states have banned abortion, with few exceptions, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, rolling back decades of abortion rights.

The Idaho and Tennessee lawsuits seek clarity on what qualifies as a “medical emergency” exception to the states’ respective abortion bans.

“The confusing language and non-medical terminology in these bans have left doctors uncertain when they are legally able to provide abortion care,” the press release says. “It’s unclear how sick or near-death a patient must be before a doctor can intervene. There is also no exception in Idaho or Tennessee for situations where the fetus has a fatal condition and would not survive. The lawsuits ask the courts to clarify that the exceptions include such fatal diagnoses, which jeopardize pregnant people’s health.”

The legal claims are also aimed at allowing doctors to “use their own medical judgment to provide that care without fear of prosecution.” The defendant states’ abortion bans include criminal penalties for doctors who participate in, and in some cases simply offer advice about, abortion.

“Without clarity or guidance, pregnant people are being forced to either wait until they are on the brink of death to receive care or flee the state if they are able,” the press release says.

Jennifer Adkins, the lead plaintiff in the Idaho case, learned at her 12-week ultrasound in April 2023 that the baby she was carrying had three conditions that were likely fatal to the fetus. Doctors determined that her pregnancy was likely not viable and that if she didn’t miscarry, she would likely develop edema and preeclampsia, a potentially fatal condition. She says she was forced to rely on abortion funds to help her obtain an abortion from Oregon.

“It was crushing when I learned that my baby was not expected to survive and that my life was in danger,” Adkins said, according to the Center’s press release. “I knew right away that I needed an abortion to save my life and to make sure that I was here and healthy for my family, including my now 2-year-old son. But the fact that I couldn’t get the abortion care I urgently needed in Idaho just added to our misery. We had to scramble to come up with the funds to travel for an abortion. No one deserves this heartache. It makes me angry to know that this is happening to countless Idahoans and others across the country.”

Kayla Smith also had to travel across state lines to get an abortion after learning that the child she was carrying had an inoperable congenital heart condition and would likely not survive past birth. She is now pregnant again, but she and her husband — concerned about Idaho’s laws — have since left the state and moved to Washington.

In Tennessee, Nicole Blackmon became pregnant in the summer of 2022, months after her teenage son was killed in a drive-by shooting. According to the Center’s press release, she was thrilled about the pregnancy, but during the second trimester, it was revealed that the baby’s organs were developing outside its body. It would not survive. Blackmon suffered additional health conditions and faced a high risk of a stroke during labor.

She couldn’t afford to leave Tennessee for an abortion and was forced to carry her pregnancy to term, laboring for 32 hours to give birth to a stillborn baby.

“Because of the state’s cruel laws, I was forced to carry a baby for months that was never going to live,” Blackmon said in the press release. “I was in terrible pain and could even have had a stroke and died, but I could not afford to travel out of state for an abortion. I was condemned to endure both physical and emotional torture, knowing that I was going to deliver a stillborn. How can Tennessee politicians stand by while this happens to people like me?”

Jaci Statton, of Oklahoma, says she was turned away from an Oklahoma emergency room in early 2023 despite having a type of non-viable pregnancy that can turn cancerous. Known as a molar pregnancy, it carries a risk of hemorrhaging, infection, and possibly death, according to the federal administrative complaint against HHS. Emergency room staff moved Statton to Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, where providers refused to give her an abortion, despite determining that she could die without treatment.

“[P]roviders told Jaci that they could not provide an abortion until she was actively crashing in front of them or on the verge of a heart attack,” the complaint says. “In the meantime, the best that they could offer was to let Jaci sit in the parking lot so that she would be close to the hospital when her condition further deteriorated.”

The complaint says that Statton “fled the state” to receive an abortion, traveling three hours by car as she was experiencing a medical emergency.

The complaint argues that Oklahoma Children’s Hospital violated the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) in denying Statton an abortion, the press release says. The federal law requires emergency rooms to provide “stabilizing” care to patients, which can include abortions.

The Center for Reproductive Rights notes that the legal actions come months after 13 women sued the state of Texas for being denied abortion care in that state despite facing similarly risky pregnancy complications. A federal judge has ruled that all the women in that case should have received abortions and clarified the state’s exceptions to the abortion ban, but the ruling is on hold as it has been appealed by the state.

Read the Tennessee lawsuit here and the Idaho lawsuit here. The administrative complaint against HHS can be read here.

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