‘I wasn’t allowed to get the healthcare I needed’: the women suing Tennessee for being denied abortions | Abortion

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When K Monica Kelly saw that women in Texas had filed a lawsuit challenging the contours of their state’s abortion ban, she posted on Instagram to cheer them on.

“I shared how terrible I thought it was, that they weren’t able to get the proper healthcare they needed in their state,” Kelly said. “It never crossed my mind that that was actually going to happen to me soon.”

Kelly and her husband spent a year trying to have a second baby. So when they discovered in February 2023 that Kelly was pregnant, the couple was ecstatic. They taught their son, who was then two years old, to describe their family as: “Mama, dada, me, baby, all four!” After an ultrasound looked promising, they drove more than 10 hours from their home in northern Tennessee to announce the news to their family in Florida.

Only days later, after they’d returned home, in late March, the pair drove back to Florida. This time, though, the drive was “surreal and devastating”, Kelly said. A series of catastrophic fetal diagnoses had led Kelly to decide to get an abortion – a procedure she could not legally get in Tennessee.

“It’s awful and agonizing to just even drive that far to go do something that you just really don’t want to do,” Kelly said. “Even up until the last second, I wished that I could change my mind. But I just knew that that was the best decision.”

More than a dozen states have implemented near-total abortion bans since the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade in June 2022. Although every state with an abortion ban has some kind of exception that should theoretically allow for abortions in medical emergencies, doctors and patients across the country have said that the bans are worded in such a way as to be unworkable in reality. Misinterpreting the exceptions could lead providers to shoulder not only hefty fines, but also lifelong prison sentences.

Kelly drove to Florida with her husband for an abortion after she learned about complications with her pregnancy. Photograph: Tamara Reynolds/The Guardian

As a result, dozens of women from across the country have come forward with stories of being denied medically necessary abortions. Now, Kelly, like the women in Texas, is one of them: earlier this year, she joined a lawsuit in Tennessee that was filed by multiple women who say they were turned away from abortions they desperately needed.

After Roe fell, Tennessee rushed to implement what was believed to be one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. Lawmakers have since carved out extremely narrow exceptions in the law – but advocates say they are nowhere near enough to ensure doctors can provide what is often lifesaving care.

I was trying to make a compassionate decision for my baby’

Kelly’s fetus was diagnosed with trisomy 13, a chromosomal disorder that can result in a range of grave issues, according to Kelly’s lawsuit. The fetus had large growths on the neck and back, as well as elevated swelling in the tissues and organs.

The fetus also had a condition, associated with trisomy 13, that had led the brain to fail to split correctly, Kelly said: “That’s associated with really severe complications, like facial deformities, like only having one eye and really terrible things like that.”

Many fetuses diagnosed with trisomy 13 do not make it to birth; if they are born, the infants need extensive medical care and still likely only live for hours or days.

If Kelly had continued the pregnancy, the fetus could have started experiencing pain, according to the lawsuit. Kelly faced the risk of developing medical complications herself, too, such as preeclampsia, a risky blood pressure condition.

But Tennessee bans almost all abortions after conception. Under the state’s ban, Kelly’s doctor and genetic counselor told her, Kelly could not get an abortion in Tennessee, according to her lawsuit.

“I felt confused and stressed about where to go and what to do when I wasn’t allowed to get the healthcare I needed in Tennessee,” Kelly said. “Just, the whole thing was drawn out even longer than it needed to be because I was trying to figure out where to go and I was trying to make a compassionate decision for my baby.”

Activists gather near the Tennessee state capitol building in Nashville, Tennessee, on 14 May 2022 as part of a nationwide protest for reproductive rights. Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

She considered getting an abortion in Illinois, a state that has become an abortion haven since Roe’s downfall; she made and cancelled appointments. She didn’t feel right going somewhere she had never been for such a personal procedure. “I was seeking any comfort I could possibly grab onto,” she said.

Finally, Kelly was able to get an appointment at a Florida hospital, with an OB-GYN she knew and trusted. But going to Florida came with its own challenges.

Kelly realized she was running out of time: Florida bans abortions past 15 weeks of pregnancy, and she was coming up against that limit. In addition, patients in Florida must visit an abortion provider in person for counseling, wait 24 hours, and return for the procedure itself.

Kelly and her husband also had to make the 10-hour-plus trek to north-west Florida with their toddler in tow. Just remembering that drive, Kelly said, gives her goosebumps. “It’s hard for me to put myself back in that state of mind sometimes, because it was so traumatic for me that I think my brain is trying to protect itself and forget,” she said. “I don’t remember what I did. I just went forward.”

Kelly and her husband saved money by staying at a friend’s place, but the whole trip set the couple back “at least several thousands of dollars”, Kelly estimated. “It was a lot more stressful and confusing than it would have been had we been able to just stay in Tennessee.”

At the hospital, Kelly cried before she slipped under anesthesia. The nurses held her hand.

“They were really compassionate and kind,” Kelly said, her voice choking up with tears. “That was the hardest part – just not wanting to go through with it or be there but knowing it had to be done, and then having someone just tell me it was gonna be OK. They made me feel comfortable.”

By the time of her abortion, on 31 March 2023, Kelly was roughly 15 weeks pregnant, according to her lawsuit – just about the legal limit in Florida. But abortion laws in Florida may soon shift again: the Florida state supreme court is weighing a case that may lead to a six-week abortion ban, which would outlaw the procedure before many people know they’re pregnant.

After her procedure, Kelly reached out to Allie Phillips, a Tennessee mom who went public on social media with her experience of having to travel out of state for an abortion. Phillips, who is now running for a seat in the Tennessee state legislature, was one of the first women to sue Tennessee over the exceptions in its abortion ban – months later, Kelly decided to join the lawsuit.

Seven women who say they were denied abortions in Tennessee, including Kelly and Phillips, are a part of the lawsuit. One ended up traveling to Virginia for an abortion, and was later diagnosed with sepsis due to an infection that, her doctors said, had gotten worse because her abortion had been delayed. Another woman learned that her pregnancy was unlikely to result in a healthy baby, but had to continue it against her will. She delivered a stillborn son 31 weeks into her pregnancy.

“I hope that it makes a difference. I feel like I’m proud to be a part of it, although it’s something I never wanted to be a part of,” Kelly said. “I just hope that I can make a difference for women’s rights.”

A hearing in the case is set for April.

Kelly is pregnant again with her second child. She didn’t buy newborn clothes until it was confirmed her growing fetus had no medical issues. Photograph: Tamara Reynolds/The Guardian

In April 2023, Tennessee’s Republican governor signed into law a bill that slightly expanded abortion providers’ legal protections. Under the original version of the law, all abortions had technically been felonies – but doctors who performed them could claim in court that the abortions had been performed to save a patient’s life or prevent a serious injury. Under the new law, doctors could use their “reasonable medical judgment” to perform abortions in severe emergencies, a standard that abortion-rights advocates say still opens doctors up to prosecution.

Lawyers for the women, who are being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, are asking the courts to issue a temporary injunction that would allow doctors instead to use their “good faith medical judgment” to perform abortions when a patient has a “critical or emergent physical medical condition” that threatens their health, future fertility or life.

The Texas lawsuit, meanwhile, is under deliberation by the state supreme court. A similar case, filed in Idaho last year, continues.

Kelly is pregnant again. She’s due in June 2024.

The fear of something happening to this pregnancy and, in particular, the fear of being pregnant again in Tennessee lingers. Kelly didn’t buy any new baby outfits, or tell her son about the pregnancy, until after testing confirmed her fetus had no medical issues.

“We did not start trying until my previous baby’s due date had passed. I wasn’t mentally or physically ready,” she said. “We actually ended up conceiving this baby the weekend of our former baby’s due date. Things just felt right.”

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