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Denied abortions, 5 Texas women sue the state saying the bans put them in danger

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. Who gets to make medical decisions over pregnancy complications? Well, that is the question at the heart of a new lawsuit filed in Texas.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Anna Zargarian spoke in front of the state capitol in Austin about her water breaking too early for a fetus to survive. She said doctors told her the safest option was an abortion, which they could not provide under state law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNA ZARGARIAN: I begged my doctors to give me the care I needed. They said they wanted to help but couldn't under Texas law. Where else in medicine do we do nothing and just wait and see how sick a patient becomes before acting?

INSKEEP: She's one of five women suing the state.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Austin. She spoke to the two doctors who also joined the lawsuit and why they chose to take legal action on behalf of patients. Sarah, what's the letter of the Texas law on situations like Anna's?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, that's really what this lawsuit is about. And I should mention, it's believed to be the first filed by patients challenging state abortion bans since last summer's major Supreme Court decision on abortion. And, A, there are several state laws in effect in Texas restricting abortion in various ways. They do include medical exceptions. But for Anna and the four other Texas women who are suing, even with those medical exceptions written into the law, their doctors did not feel confident that they could make the decision to terminate without fear of prosecution. The lawsuit is asking a Texas judge to clarify that doctors have the right to decide with their patients when a pregnancy is too dangerous to continue.

MARTÍNEZ: I mentioned how you spoke to two doctors who also joined with these five patients. What do they say?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Dr. Judy Levison and Dr. Damla Karsan, they're both OB-GYNs in the Houston area. They tell me doctors are afraid of saying the wrong thing either publicly or even when privately counseling patients. They worry about running afoul of laws like the one known as SB 8, which allows private citizens to sue people who help patients in Texas get abortions. Karsan told me she feels it's important to make a stand against these laws.

DAMLA KARSAN: I don't have children. And I'm not employed by a hospital. So I have colleagues who would speak out but have been told by their employer that they are not to draw attention.

MCCAMMON: And the other doctor, Judy Levison, says she recently retired from seeing patients, in part because she found herself hesitating about what she could say to someone who might be facing a serious medical crisis with their pregnancy.

JUDY LEVISON: Because we're never going to be able to list every complication or every situation where an abortion may be needed.

MCCAMMON: And Levison also told me that because she's at the end of her career, she has, quote, "less to lose" than some of her younger colleagues, who worry they could face fines or prison time under these laws.

MARTÍNEZ: So what are abortion rights opponents in Texas saying? I mean, do they think these laws need to be changed at all?

MCCAMMON: Well, the president of Texas Right to Life told me he thinks some of these patients would have been allowed to have an abortion under state law, such as those facing life-threatening emergencies, but some of the others would not. Now, abortion rights advocates say that's exactly why they need more clarity, because there are so many different circumstances that can arise. Texas Right to Life is working with lawmakers on legislation that would instruct health officials to provide more guidance to health care workers about these situations. So there may be a rare moment of agreement on both sides on this one point, the need for some clarification. But the question remains, will that come from lawmakers or state officials? Or will the courts force the issue?

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon.

Thanks a lot.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "BECOMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.