Women denied abortions sue Texas to clarify exceptions to the laws

Lauren Hall outside her home on Sept. 10. Hall had a nonviable pregnancy and had to leave the state in order to terminate, revealing gaps in the states miscarriage exception after Roe v. Wade was overturned. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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Five Texas women who say they were denied medically necessary abortions are suing the state, seeking to clarify when the procedure is permissible under state law.

They are joined in the lawsuit by two OB-GYNs who say “widespread confusion among the medical community” has left them unable to fully perform their jobs.

The lawsuit was announced Tuesday at a press conference where the plaintiffs shared stories of navigating life-threatening pregnancy complications in the largest state in the nation to ban abortion.

“The state of Texas says they want to preserve life by banning safe, legal abortion,” said Anna Zargarian, who had to travel to Colorado to get an abortion after her water broke at 19 weeks of pregnancy. “I’ve never felt my life matters less than it did during this situation.”

The plaintiffs are not asking the courts to overturn Texas’ abortion bans, but rather to clarify under what circumstances doctors can terminate pregnancies.

“Texas’s abortion bans can and should be read to ensure that physicians have wide discretion to determine the appropriate course of treatment, including abortion care, for their patients who present with emergent medical conditions — without being second guessed by the Attorney General, the Texas Medical Board, a prosecutor, or a jury,” the suit says.

The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York legal group that has led many of the recent legal fights to protect abortion access.

The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that abortion is permitted in cases in which a pregnant person has a physical condition or pregnancy complication that makes continuing pregnancy unsafe, has a condition that is exacerbated by or cannot be treated during pregnancy, or receives a diagnosis of a fetal condition that is incompatible with life.

Texas’ intersecting abortion laws allow doctors to terminate pregnancies only to save the life of the pregnant patient, but the lawsuit argues that those statutes are vague and conflicting, leaving doctors unsure of how to safely proceed.

There have been several bills filed to widen those exceptions to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, or pregnancy anomalies that make the fetus incompatible with life, but they are not expected to advance in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Lauren Hall, one of the plaintiffs named in the suit, was thrilled when she learned she was pregnant. But at her 18-week anatomy scan, she learned that her fetus was developing without a skull, a lethal fetal anomaly known as anencephaly.

Hall’s doctor said they couldn’t help her, she told The Texas Tribune in September. She would have to remain pregnant until she miscarried or delivered a baby that could not survive outside the womb.

Or, the doctor quietly suggested, Hall and her husband could leave the state.

“And she said, ‘If you do that, don’t tell anybody why you’re traveling, don’t tell your jobs, don’t tell anyone at the airport,’” Hall told the Tribune. “Which sounds extreme, but Roe had just been overturned. Everyone was so scared.”

This tragic, earth-shattering news, and the unimaginable choice she now faced, sparked a mental health crisis, Hall said. But she worried that telling a health care provider about her situation would invite more questions and, potentially, legal repercussions.

Hall and her husband eventually cobbled together the money to buy last-minute flights to Seattle, where she was able to get an abortion. Hall said many people in her life had no idea how narrow the exceptions in the law were until she experienced it firsthand.

“They were just all shocked, like, ‘Surely, there’s an exception for this,’” Hall said. “It just didn’t occur to them that a ban would include cases like this.”

One of the other plaintiffs, Amanda Zurawski, learned at 17 weeks of pregnancy that she was miscarrying and at a high risk for infection. But the fetus still had a heartbeat and her life wasn’t in danger, so she was sent home until she became septic.

Zurawski, who attended the State of the Union in February as First Lady Jill Biden’s guest, was left physically and emotionally scarred by the delay; one of her fallopian tubes is permanently closed, and she said Tuesday that she’s terrified as she resumes in vitro fertilization treatment.

“The barbaric restrictions our lawmakers have passed are having real-life implications on real people,” she said during the press conference on the north lawn of the Texas state Capitol. “The people in the building behind me have the power to fix this, yet they’ve done nothing. In fact, they’re currently trying to pass even more restrictive measures.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights said Tuesday that it is continuing to look for other avenues to challenge state-level abortion bans in court, while advocating for federal abortion protections.

The group unsuccessfully challenged Texas’ Senate Bill 8, which in 2021 banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, and argued on behalf of Jackson Women’s Health Organization in the case that overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

This lawsuit, however, represents the first case brought by people who have had their pregnancy care directly impacted by new, post-Roe abortion laws, said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“These women … represent only the tip of the iceberg,” Northup said. “This is the first lawsuit in the nation, but tragically it is unlikely to be the last.”

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