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Women and physicians in Idaho, Oklahoma and Tennessee have sued their home states after they say they were denied abortion care despite being diagnosed with serious, life-threatening medical conditions while pregnant.
The lawsuits are led by the Center for Reproductive Rights, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Several of the plaintiffs and attorneys for the organization joined a press conference held Tuesday morning to announce the actions.
The filings come after 13 women sued the state of Texas for similar reasons and a judge in that case ruled that all the women should have been given abortions. That ruling has been appealed by the state and is now on hold, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“It is clear that in filing that lawsuit in Texas, we hit the tip of a very large iceberg,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center, on Tuesday. “Today, (plaintiffs) are holding their states accountable for the suffering they have caused.”
Idaho plaintiffs ask court to clarify medical exceptions
In Idaho, four patient plaintiffs, two physicians and the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians are suing the state over its near-total abortion ban, asking a court in Ada County to clarify when an abortion is acceptable under the law.
Idaho’s abortion ban applies to any stage of pregnancy, and narrow exceptions are provided for cases of rape and incest in the first trimester with an accompanying police report, and when an abortion is necessary to prevent a pregnant person’s death. Health care providers who violate the statute put their medical licenses at risk and face between two and five years in prison, along with civil penalties of at least $20,000 against individual providers if family members decide to sue.
“… Pervasive fear and uncertainty throughout the medical community regarding the scope of the exceptions to abortion bans have put patients’ lives and physicians’ liberty at grave risk,” the court document states.
One of the plaintiffs in Idaho is Jennifer Adkins, whose story was first reported by States Newsroom in May. At her 12-week ultrasound appointment, Adkins’ fetus was diagnosed with conditions that are almost always fatal, including a collection of fluid called a cystic hygroma and hydrops fetalis, and a missing chromosome. In 99% of cases, such a pregnancy ends in miscarriage by 12 weeks, but Adkins was still pregnant. As a result, she was at risk for developing high blood pressure that could lead to seizures, stroke and organ damage.
Knowing the prognosis and health risks, and with a toddler at home to care for, Adkins made the decision to travel to Portland for an abortion.
“It isn’t safe to be pregnant in Idaho,” Adkins said during the press conference Tuesday. “People in Idaho must be able to make informed decisions with their doctors without intrusion from politicians.”
Other plaintiffs like Adkins are Jillaine St.Michel, Kayla Smith and Rebecca Vincen-Brown. According to court documents, St.Michel learned at her 20-week ultrasound appointment that her fetus’ organ systems showed “severe developmental conditions.” Smith learned her fetus had a severe congenital heart condition that made survival after birth very unlikely and increased her risks of developing preeclampsia, a condition she experienced during her first pregnancy. Both women traveled out of state to receive abortion care.
Vincen-Brown found out at 16 weeks that her fetus had a serious genetic condition that made it unlikely to survive at birth, court documents said, and risked her health as well. She drove seven hours with her husband and child to a clinic in Oregon and ultimately “passed the pregnancy in the hotel bathroom as her daughter slept on the other side of the door.”
Idaho’s ban, the lawsuit contends, endangers pregnant Idahoans and risks their fertility and potential for injury or death.
Two doctors in Idaho’s case are Drs. Emily Corrigan, an OBGYN, and Julie Lyons, a family physician. Corrigan said Tuesday that there is widespread confusion in the medical community in Idaho about when the law allows an abortion to be performed, even a full year after it went into effect. Many physicians have already left the state over the law, she said, particularly after the Idaho Legislature failed to pass a bill in the 2023 legislative session that would have allowed abortions to be performed to preserve a pregnant person’s health, not just to save their life.
The final plaintiff in the case, the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians, represents 656 physicians, residents and medical students across the state.
“All of the above-described impacts on Idaho’s already strained medical system are likely to worsen if the abortion bans, in their current form, remain in effect,” the court document says. “A collapse of the system seems inevitable and will result in grave danger to all Idahoans needing any form of health care — not only those who may need abortion care in the future.”
Oklahoma woman was told to wait in the parking lot while health deteriorated
In Oklahoma, Jaci Statton filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, a federal law that requires medical facilities that accept Medicare funding to provide emergency stabilizing treatment to patients. According to the complaint, Statton learned she was pregnant early in the year, but began experiencing pain, dizziness and severe nausea mere weeks into the pregnancy. She then learned she had a partial molar pregnancy, a non-viable pregnancy that can cause hemorrhaging, infection and death if left untreated.
Statton went to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in March in severe pain, the complaint says, but the staff would not provide abortion care and instead moved her to the Oklahoma Children’s Hospital.
“Jaci and her husband begged staff at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital to perform an abortion, even asking to speak to a hospital ethics board and explain why Jaci should be permitted to access life-saving care,” the document says. The staff instead told her she could not receive an abortion “until she was actively crashing in front of them or on the verge of a heart attack.”
Until then, according to the complaint, they told Statton to sit in the parking lot, so she was close to the hospital as her condition worsened.
“As her condition grew more dire, Jaci fled the state to receive an abortion, traveling three hours by car during a medical emergency,” the complaint says.
Attorneys for Statton argue there was no legal basis for the children’s hospital to deny her medical care, since Oklahoma’s existing ban had exceptions for active medical emergencies. The complaint asks the Oklahoma region of the Medicare and Medicaid Services division to investigate the incident and find that the hospital violated EMTALA by failing to provide Statton with stabilizing care.
“The investigation and finding are necessary to safeguard access to emergency medical treatment for all pregnant Oklahomans who remain at risk that hospitals will deny them care in the event that they experience a pregnancy complication,” the complaint said.
Financial barriers forced Tennessee woman to give birth to stillborn
Three women and two physicians in Tennessee are suing the state in Davidson County court to clarify the state’s medical condition exception and issue a ruling blocking enforcement of the law “to protect the health and lives of pregnant Tennesseans with emergent medical conditions.”
The individuals are Nicole Blackmon, Allie Phillips and Katy Dulong. Blackmon discussed her experience during the Tuesday conference call, saying the Tennessee law forced her to carry a non-viable pregnancy that posed serious risks to her health.
Blackmon learned she was pregnant in July 2022, just five months after losing her 14-year-old son in a drive-by shooting in Alabama. Although it was unintentional, Blackmon said she and her fiancé were excited about the possibility of having another child. But she already had medical issues that could be exacerbated by pregnancy.
“We were excited, but worried at the same time, and at 15 weeks we learned there was an issue with the baby’s stomach,” Blackmon said. “Then at 24 weeks, a specialist confirmed our baby’s organs were not forming as expected or in the right places. … Doctors told us certainly that this pregnancy would not result in a living baby.”
At that gestational age, Blackmon’s only options were to wait and risk her health and life or travel to Washington, D.C., for an abortion. But even with financial assistance, the trip would have cost thousands of dollars that she couldn’t afford, especially as her health deteriorated and she was unable to keep working.
“Waiting to lose another child in the same year was bad enough, but then my health started to get worse,” Blackmon said. “My water broke in my seventh month, and after 32 hours laboring, I delivered our baby stillborn. Why won’t Tennessee politicians allow people to have abortions in terrible situations like mine? Something good must come out of my pain, that’s why I joined this case. What we went through was torture that no one else should ever have to face.”
Phillips was told at 15 weeks of pregnancy that her fetus’ kidneys, bladder, stomach and heart were improperly developed, and the brain had not developed into separate hemispheres, a congenital defect. All of those complications together made it extremely unlikely that the pregnancy was viable, according to court documents.
Phillips started a GoFundMe to raise enough money to obtain an abortion in New York City, but shortly after arriving at the clinic, the fetus’ heart had stopped beating.
“I went into surgery alone, and I sat in recovery alone,” Phillips said Tuesday. “The doctors were kind and compassionate, but I’d never met them before. I had to grieve the loss of my daughter in a city I’d never been to.”
Dulong experienced issues with her cervix and placenta that eventually led to serious medical complications, including the beginning of sepsis, an internal infection that can quickly become fatal. Her doctor spent two hours asking various legal and ethical personnel at the hospital for support to provide her with medication to induce an abortion, the court document said.
“(Dulong) was told that prior to Tennessee’s enactment of an abortion ban, even the Catholic hospital where her abortion was performed would have given her (abortion medication) when she was first diagnosed with an incompetent cervix, instead of risking septicemia or hemorrhaging at home,” the lawsuit said.
Drs. Heather Maune and Laura Andreson joined the lawsuit in Tennessee, saying they have seen widespread fear and confusion about the abortion ban and alleging it has had a chilling effect on obstetric care in general.
“Dr. Maune and her peers fear that prosecutors and politicians will target them personally if they provide abortion care to pregnant people with emergent conditions,” the court document states.
Andreson said in the lawsuit that many of her patients live in rural areas and drive more than an hour to see her, and sending those patients to clinics out of state could result in life-threatening situations.