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Texas physicians say it's much harder for women with dangerous pregnancies to get abortions

An exam room at Whole Woman's Health of Austin.
Michael Minasi
An exam room at Whole Woman's Health of Austin.

Obstetricians and maternal-fetal medicine specialists in Texas say people with possibly life-threatening pregnancies are having a hard time getting a recommended abortion, since Texas’ six-week abortion ban went into effect on Sept. 1.

The state's abortion ban, known as SB 8, prohibits the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — which is before many people even realize they are pregnant. Under the law, private citizens are allowed to sue anyone who provides an abortion after six weeks, as well as anyone "who aids and abets" someone who gets the procedure after six weeks.

During an online discussion Thursday hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, Dr. Lorie Harper — a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and professor at Dell Med — said SB 8 has made it more difficult to care for women who have physically dangerous pregnancies.

“Some women just cannot take the stress of pregnancy so they may basically die or develop a life-threatening condition because of pregnancy,” she said. “In those cases, I have to recommend an abortion in order to prevent a maternal death. And that is getting much harder.”

For one, she said, the legal stakes of these decisions are getting much higher. That’s because SB 8 was designed to be enforced through civil lawsuits that could be filed by anyone in the country.

Harper said the law does make an exemption to save the life of the pregnant person. So, someone can obtain an abortion after six weeks if their life is at risk, but Harper said that could be very broadly interpreted. Someone could disagree with the doctor's decision and possibly sue them.

“Because of the civil lawsuit nature of this and how it is interpreted leaves us feeling very open to lawsuits and very at risk,” Harper said, “even when we feel the procedure is medically indicated and justified.”

Under SB 8, women are allowed to end a pregnancy if a doctor determines that there is a “medical emergency.” Harper said that is “not very clearly defined” and can be either narrowly or broadly interpreted depending on the individual physician.

Harper said that means different patients will face “a luck of the draw” if they face an issue during their pregnancy. She said privileged patients will be able to “doctor shop,” but patients with limited access to health care could have a harder time getting an abortion.

“Physicians are having to choose between their own personal well-being and at times a patient’s well-being,” she said.

Dr. Lauren Thaxton, a board-certified OB-GYN and assistant professor at Dell Med, said many doctors are feeling a lot of fear and threat of legal action under this new law.

“We went to medical school, we do not go to law school,” she said. “There’s a real threat that is being placed on medical providers.”

Another consequence of SB 8, doctors say, is that now it’s harder for families to get access to a procedure intended to allow a fetus to survive a rare pregnancy complication. In particular, Harper says, abortion procedures are now banned in twin and triplet pregnancies where one fetus is in danger or can’t survive.

“There are centers in Texas capable of saving the life of the healthy twin at the cost of the unhealthy fetus that can’t survive,” Harper said. “After SB 8, those procedures stopped being offered in Texas. So, when patients have those complicated pregnancies, they have to leave the state to save their healthy baby.”

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Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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