How Texas abortion law turned a pregnancy loss into a medical trauma : Shots - Health News New, untested abortion bans have made doctors unsure about treating some pregnancy complications. That's led to life-threatening delays, and trapped families in a limbo of grief and helplessness.

Because of Texas abortion law, her wanted pregnancy became a medical nightmare

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1111280165/1113615407" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The fall of Roe v. Wade is doing more than banning or restricting abortions. It's also having serious impacts on pregnancy care. The abortion bans in some states are so new and often so ill-defined that doctors and hospitals don't know how they apply to complications. NPR's Carrie Feibel brings us the story of a woman in Texas whose pregnancy took a sudden turn. And because of the state's abortion law, her case became a medical crisis.

CARRIE FEIBEL, BYLINE: This story was never supposed to be about abortion. It was supposed to be about pregnancy - a pregnancy that Elizabeth and James Weller had been trying for.

ELIZABETH WELLER: It took immediately, and we were really pleasantly surprised by how quick it happened.

FEIBEL: The Wellers live in Houston. She's getting a graduate degree in political science, and he teaches middle-school math. At 17 weeks, they found out they were having a girl. And the anatomy scan showed everything looked great.

WELLER: There was nothing wrong with her - no development issues wrong.

FEIBEL: A week after that scan, Elizabeth went for a walk after breakfast. It was May 10, weeks before the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. But in Texas, things had already changed. Most abortions after six weeks were banned. Elizabeth didn't think that could affect her. They were going for it. They were setting up the nursery. But when Elizabeth got back from her morning walk, she felt something shift inside.

WELLER: This burst of water just falls out of my body. And I screamed because that's when I knew something wrong was happening.

FEIBEL: James rushed home, and they drove to the ER at Houston Methodist Hospital in The Woodlands.

WELLER: (Crying) And I asked the technician - I was like, is she OK? And she goes, well, it's kind of hard to tell 'cause there's very little amniotic fluid. At the time, I had no idea what that meant.

FEIBEL: It was premature rupture of membranes. Her waters had broken too soon. It happens in about 3% of pregnancies. If it's later in pregnancy, sometimes doctors can delay delivery - give the fetus more time to develop. But sometimes the baby is born far too early and dies or is born with serious disabilities.

Elizabeth was admitted to the hospital. And later that night, her OB-GYN called to talk it through. She was 18 - almost 19 weeks pregnant. There was still a fetal heartbeat, but it could stop at any moment. The watery cushion of amniotic fluid had disappeared. That also meant the lungs and the fetus would stop developing. Her doctor said one option was to try to stay pregnant, although this could be very risky and would likely not work.

WELLER: And she says, let's say if you get to the week of viability, which is around 24 weeks - I can't promise you that she will continue to live past that point. And because there's no amniotic fluid left, she's no longer going to be a developed baby.

FEIBEL: Elizabeth's doctor wouldn't do an interview for this story, but Dr. Alan Peaceman, a maternal-fetal specialist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, says the chance of a fetus surviving in that state from 18 until 24 weeks is virtually zero.

ALAN PEACEMAN: It's almost inevitable that the pregnancy is going to be lost anyway. And many women would say, why do I have to continue to carry a pregnancy that is doomed? And that's a huge psychological burden.

FEIBEL: Prolonging the pregnancy also meant Elizabeth could develop a serious or even life-threatening infection in her uterus. So her other option was to end the pregnancy. Elizabeth was distraught and heartbroken. She could never have imagined making that decision, but now she felt continuing the pregnancy was wrong. It felt scary and also cruel.

WELLER: You have to ask yourself - would I put any - any living thing through the pain and the horrors of having to try to fight for their life the minute that they're born?

FEIBEL: James was in total agreement. But the next morning, they learned it wasn't their decision to make. The Texas law was making it hard for her OB to arrange the procedure.

WELLER: I remember hearing her from my room, speaking loudly about how nothing is being done here.

FEIBEL: Her doctor came back to her bedside. Elizabeth says she looked defeated.

WELLER: And she starts to cry. And she tells me, they're not going to touch you, and that you can either stay here and wait to get sick, where we can monitor you, or we discharge you and you monitor yourself, or you wait till your baby's heartbeat stops.

FEIBEL: The Texas abortion law meant they couldn't end the pregnancy as long as there was a fetal heartbeat. There was one exception - for a medical emergency. But wasn't this a medical emergency? Elizabeth was told, no, not yet. She had to wait for more signs of a growing infection in her uterus. Dr. Peaceman, in Illinois, says the hospital in Houston was dealing with a state law that doesn't define what qualifies as a medical emergency.

PEACEMAN: It's terrible, but the care providers are treading on eggshells. They don't want to get sucked into this - into a legal morass.

FEIBEL: Houston Methodist Hospital declined to comment on the specifics of Elizabeth's care, except to say they follow all state laws and that there's a medical ethics committee that sometimes reviews complex cases.

WELLER: At first, I was really enraged at the hospital and administration.

FEIBEL: To Elizabeth, it already felt like a medical emergency. She had cramps. She was passing blood. But she was told those weren't the right symptoms. She needed a fever of 100.4 and chills. Her discharge had to be darker, and it had to smell bad. Then, they could proceed and end the pregnancy.

WELLER: To them, my life was not in danger enough.

FEIBEL: Elizabeth says she realized later the hospital was just as trapped as she was.

WELLER: It wasn't that the Methodist Hospital was refusing to perform a service to me simply because they didn't want to. It was because Texas law put them in a position to where they were intimidated to not perform this procedure.

FEIBEL: Under Texas law, doctors can be sued by almost anyone for performing an illegal abortion. Elizabeth was discharged, but she was barely out the door when her phone rang.

WELLER: But as I'm leaving Methodist, I get a call from Methodist, and it's this woman who is saying, hi, Ms. Weller. You're at the 19-week mark, so I'm here to call you to register for your delivery on October 5 so I can collect all your insurance information. How are you doing, and are you excited for the delivery? And I just cried and screamed in the parking lot. This poor woman had no idea what she was telling me. (Crying) And I told her, no, ma'am. I'm actually headed home right now because I have to await my dead baby's delivery. And she goes, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't know.

FEIBEL: Elizabeth went home to wait for one of two things to happen - both awful - for the fetal heartbeat to stop or to get sick enough to become a medical emergency. The next day, Thursday, she started throwing up. But when she called, they said vomiting wasn't one of the symptoms they were looking for. On Friday, she called back and begged to get in. Maybe the fetal heartbeat had finally stopped? They went to the office. The heartbeat was still there. Her OB had been calling other hospitals, but none of them would help. Right there in the office, James started looking for flights to states with less restrictive abortion laws.

WELLER: And he and I kept telling each other - what is the whole point of the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, and yet we are being pulled through this?

FEIBEL: They went back home. They started booking tickets. And then, suddenly, Elizabeth felt another gush of fluid leave her body. The color and odor were much worse. They called the doctor again. Now, they were told to go to the ER and hurry. These symptoms showed the infection was getting worse. Elizabeth and James rushed back to Methodist. They were still checking into the ER when her OB called again. The ethics panel had reached a decision.

WELLER: They found a doctor from East Texas who spoke up and was so patient-forward, so patient-advocating that he said this is ridiculous. Everybody there agreed and decided that what was happening was unethical, and they decided to induce you tonight.

FEIBEL: Elizabeth and James stood up and threw their arms around each other. They said, thank you out loud over and over.

WELLER: We shouldn't have been celebrating, and yet we were because the alternative was hell.

FEIBEL: It was Friday night. They induced labor, and it was so painful that she needed an epidural. After midnight on Saturday, May 14, she gave birth. Their daughter was stillborn, as expected.

WELLER: They laid down this beautiful (crying) baby girl in my arms. And she was so tiny. And she rested on my chest. I cried, and I told her, I'm so sorry I couldn't give you life. I'm so sorry.

FEIBEL: Six weeks later, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. What happened to the Wellers could now happen in many other states. And there are already reports of risky delays for this problem and other pregnancy complications. Elaine Cavazos is a perinatal psychotherapist in Austin. She says there's already so much silence and stigma around pregnancy loss. All too often, patients are told to get over it, move on, try again. Now, many patients will also be coping with a new kind of medical trauma.

ELAINE CAVAZOS: It's just really unimaginable to be in a position of having to think - how close to death am I before somebody is going to take action and help me?

FEIBEL: This frightening lack of control can make the grief over losing a pregnancy much, much worse.

CAVAZOS: She has had the very worst thing happen to her, and that will color any subsequent pregnancy. It will be hard.

FEIBEL: But Elizabeth Weller isn't ready. Watching Roe get overturned enraged her. And she fears not just another complication, but getting trapped by the law again.

WELLER: This is the one situation my entire life where I have felt absolutely hopeless, and that I was drowning, and no one was willing to save me. The state of Texas put me through that mental anguish because I couldn't get the help that I needed.

FEIBEL: As abortion rights topple in state after state, a terrible question remains. Even the strictest bans have an exception for the woman's life. But right now, almost no one knows exactly how close to the edge her life needs to be.

Carrie Feibel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.