Eight more women are joining a lawsuit against the state of Texas, saying the state's abortion bans put their health or lives at risk while facing pregnancy-related medical emergencies.
The new plaintiffs have added their names to a lawsuit originally filed in March by five women and two doctors who say that pregnant patients are being denied abortions under Texas law despite facing serious medical complications. The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the women, is now asking for a temporary injunction to block Texas abortion bans in the event of pregnancy complications.
"What happened to these women is indefensible and is happening to countless pregnant people across the state," Molly Duane, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.
The new group of women brings the total number of plaintiffs to 15. The lawsuit, filed in state court in Austin, asks a judge to clarify the meaning of medical exceptions in the state's anti-abortion statutes.
The Texas "trigger law," passed in 2021 in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, makes performing an abortion a felony, with exceptions for a "life-threatening physical condition" or "a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function."
Another Texas law, known as S.B. 8, prohibits nearly all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. That ban, with a novel enforcement mechanism that relies on private citizens filing civil lawsuits against anyone believed to be involved in providing prohibited abortions, took effect in September 2021 after the Supreme Court turned back a challenge from a Texas abortion provider.
In an interview with NPR in April, Jonathan Mitchell, a lawyer who assisted Texas lawmakers in crafting the language behind S.B. 8, said he believed the medical exceptions in the law should not have prohibited emergency abortions.
"It concerns me, yeah, because the statute was never intended to restrict access to medically-necessary abortions," Mitchell said. "The statute was written to draw a clear distinction between abortions that are medically necessary and abortions that are purely elective. Only the purely elective abortions are unlawful under S.B. 8."
But many doctors in Texas and other states with similar laws that have taken effect since last year's Supreme Court decision say they feel unsafe providing abortions while facing the threat of substantial fines, the loss of their medical licenses, or prison time.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
First though, more women are adding their names to a lawsuit challenging abortion bans in the state of Texas. All of them say they faced medically complicated pregnancies and were denied abortions under state law, putting their health, their lives at risk. Jessica Bernardo is among the women joining the lawsuit originally filed in March.
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JESSICA BERNARDO: I'm speaking up now and joining this case because I never want another human being to go through what I and other Texans have been through. This has to be stopped.
KELLY: NPR's Sarah McCammon has been following this case all along. She's here with an update. Hey, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: All right, let's back up, set the stage. What exactly is this lawsuit about?
MCCAMMON: So a group of Texas women who faced complicated pregnancies, many of them potentially life-threatening, are suing the state of Texas over its multiple abortion bans, which they say are putting patients' lives and health at risk. That lawsuit started in March with five women and two doctors, and today, it's expanding to include eight more women, so a total of 15 plaintiffs. Now, Jessica Bernardo, who we just heard from, is one of the new plaintiffs. And during a press conference today, she said she was told by her doctor that the fetus she was carrying was suffering from a fatal complication, that her life could also be at risk without an abortion. And so she requested an abortion in Texas but says she was denied one by a hospital ethics committee and wound up traveling out of state. Another new plaintiff, Elizabeth Weller, says her water broke too early for the fetus to survive. She says she was told by health care providers she'd have to wait until she developed an infection before they could terminate the pregnancy in Texas.
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ELIZABETH WELLER: The darkest week of my life began as I left the hospital with amniotic fluid still leaking down my leg. With every passing day, I felt the state's intentional cruelty. (Crying) My baby would not survive, and my life didn't matter. There was nothing I could do about it.
MCCAMMON: Now the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing these plaintiffs, says several women have come forward since that lawsuit was first filed in March to say that they have similar stories.
KELLY: And what specifically are they hoping to accomplish with this lawsuit?
MCCAMMON: Well, it's important to understand this suit is fairly limited in its scope. You know, most abortions are illegal in Texas now. The state's abortion laws only include limited medical exceptions, and the lawsuit is not trying to overturn those laws wholesale. Instead, it's asking for specific clarity about what the medical exceptions really mean because doctors say they're not sure what they're allowed to do. Molly Duane is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, and she says she wants Texas courts to provide that clarity for health care providers.
MOLLY DUANE: I think what is important to recognize about the fact that we amended this lawsuit to add so many new plaintiffs is that it is so clear - if it wasn't from our initial filing, so clear now that this is an ongoing, pervasive problem in the state of Texas and around the country.
KELLY: So Sarah, when supporters of these abortion bans hear that argument, hear stories like the ones of women that we've just been sharing, how do they respond?
MCCAMMON: Well, generally, they've responded by suggesting that doctors may not be interpreting these laws correctly, that they don't really prohibit abortion, at least in some of these cases. For example, I sat down a few weeks ago with Jonathan Mitchell. He's a Texas attorney who worked with state lawmakers there to write S.B. 8, one of the laws being challenged here. That's the one that relies on private civil lawsuits for enforcement. And here's what Mitchell said about these types of cases.
JONATHAN MITCHELL: It concerns me, yeah, because the statute was never intended to restrict access to medically necessary abortions. The statute was written to draw a clear distinction between abortions that are medically necessary and abortions that are purely elective. Only the purely elective abortions are unlawful under S.B. 8.
MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, whatever was intended, doctors say they worry about being sued, losing their licenses, going to prison even, if their medical judgment is questioned. And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said in response to this lawsuit that he will continue to defend and enforce Texas anti-abortion laws.
KELLY: All right. And what's the timescale on this? What's coming next?
MCCAMMON: Well, I'd expect a hearing at some point in the future. For now, the Center for Reproductive Rights is asking for an injunction to block enforcement of these Texas abortion bans as they concern patients with pregnancy complications and health care providers who are caring for them. They say these laws are creating a health care crisis that will continue without intervention from the courts.
KELLY: NPR's Sarah McCammon reporting. Thanks, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.