In Texas, Women Denied Abortions File Landmark Lawsuit

A lawsuit by 13 women and two ob-gyns in Texas wants the state to answer for the consequences of its multiple anti-abortion laws.

Update, Monday, May 22, at 9:06 a.m. PT: Eight additional women came forward to join a lawsuit filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) against the state of Texas, for a new total of 15 plaintiffs: 13 women, plus two ob-gyns. All 13 women on the lawsuit were denied abortions in Texas despite dangerous pregnancy complications.

“It is outrageous that I was forced to get sicker and sicker before I could get the medical care I needed,” said Elizabeth Weller, one of the new plaintiffs in the case, who said she faced two options during her pregnancy due to the state’s total ban on abortion: “Stay in the hospital and wait for my baby to die … or go home and wait for my own demise.”

“I want Texas lawmakers to know what they are putting me and other women through,” said another plaintiff Jessica Bernardo, who joined the case on Monday after surviving an almost-fatal pregnancy that she and her husband planned for, and mourning the loss of a baby they had desperately wanted. 

“There are so many complications that can arise during pregnancy,” Bernardo continued. “That’s why abortion is so necessary—it is essential healthcare. My life was on the line, and I might not have made it without an abortion. Yet I had to flee my own state and felt like I had to speak to my doctor in code. I was made to feel like I was doing something wrong, but I was just trying to save my own life. The other option was to stay in Texas and possibly die.”

The lawsuit also requests a temporary injunction, which would block Texas’ abortion bans as they apply to pregnancy complications while the case proceeds. Since CRR first filed the lawsuit in March, Texas lawmakers have not moved forward on making any changes to the existing total abortion ban in the state.

“This is the first lawsuit in which individual women have sued a state for the harm that they endured because abortion care has been criminalized in the wake of Roe’s reversal,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. (Roxy Szal)

Zurawski v. Texas, a new lawsuit announced Tuesday, March 7, marks the first time patients directly affected by abortion laws have sought to challenge them in court. Filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) on behalf of five Texans directly harmed by bans and two Texas ob-gyns, the lawsuit aims to hold the state of Texas accountable for the consequences of the state’s multiple anti-abortion laws.

Currently, three dueling abortion bans are in effect in the state:

  • House Bill 1280, a “trigger” law passed in 2021 prohibiting all abortion if and when Roe v. Wade is overturned, which took effect in June 2022
  • a criminal ban dating back to the creation of the state’s penal code in 1857, often called the “pre-Roe statutes”
  • Senate Bill 8, a ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, which contains the infamous “vigilante” provision incentivizing private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, resulting in at least $10,000 in damages

All three bans have no exceptions for rape or incest. While the laws do contain “medical emergency” exceptions, doctors and healthcare providers—who face up to 99 years in prison for providing an abortion under the trigger ban alone—have reported widespread confusion over what qualifies as an exception.  

“Since Texas’ abortion bans took effect, my hands are tied in many situations,” said Dr. Damla Karsan, a plaintiff in the case. “I’ve had to send patients to other states for abortion care that I could have easily given them right across the street at the hospital. I know most Texas doctors are scared to provide abortions in any circumstances or even say the word ‘abortion.’ We need clarity on what kinds of patients we can help without losing our license or ending up in jail.”

The CRR lawsuit argues the three laws violate the pregnant women’s fundamental human rights and the Texas constitution’s guarantees to life, liberty and equality and the rights of physicians—namely, their rights to pursue their profession without risking loss of liberty. 

The five women named in the lawsuit—Amanda Zurawski, Lauren Miller, Lauren Hall, Anna Zargarian and Ashley Brandt—say they were denied medically necessary abortions, even though their conditions should have qualified under the state’s abortion ban exceptions. Instead, all of their conditions worsened, posing risks to their fertility, health and lives. 

How could anyone stand by, waiting for you to be close enough to death? Lawmakers passing these cruel bans should be asking themselves that question.

Molly Duane, senior staff attorney

According to the lawsuit,

  • The lead plaintiff in the case, Zurawski “was forced to wait until she was septic to receive abortion care, causing one of her fallopian tubes to become permanently closed.”
  • “When [Miller] learned one of her twins was not viable, she was forced to travel out of state for the abortion she needed to save her and her other baby’s life, who is due in several weeks.”
  • Hall “received a devastating fetal diagnosis two weeks after Roe was overturned, and in the chaos that followed, she was forced to travel to Seattle for an abortion. Pregnant again now, [Hall] fears that Texas is not safe for her or her family.”
  • Zargarian “was forced to fly across multiple states after her water broke, risking that she would go into labor or septic shock on the journey.”
  • Brandt “had to travel out of state to for an abortion to save the life of one of her twins, and afterwards, fearful of documenting [Brandt’s] abortion, her Texas physician instead described her condition as ‘vanishing twin syndrome.'”

“I love Texas,” said Hall, “and it kills me that my own state does not seem to care if I live or die.”

“Texas officials claim the bans they passed protect ‘life,’ but there’s nothing pro-life about them. I nearly died as a direct result of the anti-abortion restrictions in Texas,” said Zurawski. “What’s more, they put the lives of my potential future children at risk, as the damage done to my body has already had a negative impact on my reproductive health.”

“It is with, and for, all Texans who, like me, are scared and outraged at the thought of being pregnant in this state, that I stand and fight,” said Zurawski at a Tuesday press conference. (Roxy Szal)

No one should be forced to wait until they are at death’s door to receive healthcare.

Nancy Northup

In Texas, Republicans hold a trifecta in the state’s two legislative bodies and in the governor’s mansion. In the legislature, several bills have been filed that would create exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest, or anomalies that make a fetus incompatible with life—but they are not expected to advance.

The CRR lawsuit’s novel legal approach is growing more urgent, as bans begin to pop up in states that previously allowed abortion, such as Florida—where the Republican-led legislature on Tuesday filed bills that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy—and Wyoming—where two anti-abortion bills await the signature of Gov. Mark Gordon (R), who is historically anti-abortion.

“What’s happening here in Texas is happening throughout the nation,” said Northup. “Perhaps the strength of the five women who have come forward today will help give others strength, so they too can hold their states to account.”

Watch the full press conference below:

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.