Texas Women Denied Abortions Get Their Day in Court

Three women—all of whom desperately wanted to be pregnant—shared harrowing stories of near-death experiences, all a result of Texas abortion bans.

Samantha Casiano and Luis Villasana outside Travis County Courthouse in Austin on July 19, 2023. A Texas state court heard arguments from both sides in Zurawski v. State of Texas, a lawsuit filed by CRR on behalf of Texas women denied abortions despite serious pregnancy complications. (Suzanne Cordeiro / AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Texas women denied abortions despite serious pregnancy complications shared their stories in an Austin courtroom on the first day of testimony in Zurawski v. State of Texas—a lawsuit filed against the state of Texas by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), and the first brought on behalf of women denied abortions since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

The case has 15 plaintiffs in total: 13 women who suffered grave medical complications after being denied abortions, plus two ob-gyns. On Wednesday, the first in the two-day hearing, three of these women shared stories of the severe physical harms and trauma they experienced during their pregnancies, which they say were directly caused by Texas’ anti-abortion laws.

Two abortion bans are currently in effect in Texas—both of which carry “penalties for violating [that] could not be more severe,” said Molly Duane, CRR senior staff attorney. Together, these bans have essentially banned abortion in the state for almost two years, “longer than any other state,” said Duane. 

  • The first is Senate Bill 8, the six-week ban with a vigilante provision, which took effect on Sept. 1, 2021. At the time S.B. 8 took effect, it was considered the most restrictive abortion ban in U.S. history. Under the law, anyone suspected of performing a prohibited abortion, or aiding and abetting one, faces a civil lawsuit with monetary penalties of at least $10,000. 
  • The second is Texas’ Human Life Protection Act, colloquially known as the trigger ban, a total abortion ban which took effect shortly after the fall of Roe. The law makes performing an abortion from the moment of fertilization a felony. Violators of the law face punishments that include life in prison and a civil penalty of not less than $100,000, plus attorney’s fees.

The lawsuit seeks to temporarily block both bans.

The state can’t force you to be exposed to severe medical risk.

Molly Duane, the Center for Reproductive Rights

The plaintiffs also ask the court to clarify for doctors which circumstances qualify as exceptions to the bans, and to allow providers to use their own medical judgment without fear of prosecution. Current exceptions are limited to situations where there is “a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that … poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless the abortion is performed or induced.”

These limited exceptions have caused confusion and sewn fear among doctors, many of whom have postponed or refused to provide abortion care. Doctors also report hesitancy among other medical personnel like nurses and anesthesiologists, who say they fear being seen as “aiding and abetting” an abortion.

“At the very heart of this case,” said Duane,” is that “no action has been taken by the medical board of Texas. … Action from this court is needed,” she urged, due to the “unworkability of the [laws’] exceptions as they exist now.”

The first plaintiff to testify was Amanda Zurawski. 

After becoming pregnant, Zurawski’s water broke at just under 18 weeks, and her doctor told her a miscarriage was inevitable. As it was a much-wanted pregnancy, Zurawski “wanted to start the grieving process”—but her doctor told her that because of the trigger ban, which took effect that week, she could not intervene to induce labor. Zurawski sought a second opinion from a maternal fetal medicine doctor, who confirmed this prognosis.

Without abortion care, Zurawski developed sepsis, a life-threatening infection. Only then, close to death, was she provided an abortion, where she was forced to deliver a fetus that no longer had a heartbeat. She and her husband named their daughter Willow, after the tree native to both central Texas and their home state of Indiana.

As a result of her sepsis, Zurawski will suffer lasting effects to her fertility, including dense scarring, the permanent closure of one of her fallopian tubes and a collapsed uterus.

Amanda Zurawski and her husband Josh Zurawski outside of the courtroom at the Travis County Courthouse on July 19, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (Suzanne Cordeiro / AFP via Getty Images)

Ashley Brandt, a fellow plaintiff, was next to testify. 

Last year, Brandt found out she was pregnant with twins. But at her 13-week ultrasound, Brandt was informed one of her twins had developed without a skull—a condition called acrania, which is considered incompatible with life. The devastating diagnosis put both her life and the life of her healthy twin at serious risk. Selective fetal reduction is the standard of care in this case to preserve the life of the remaining fetus, but doctors in Texas refused to provide the procedure to Brandt due to fear of prosecution. She and her husband decided to travel by plane to Colorado—a state without an abortion ban—to have the procedure performed. 

If she had not left the state, Brandt said she would have been “forced to give birth to an identical version of my daughter without a skull and without a brain and hold her until she died. … Instead I got to give birth to my healthy daughter. Instead of crying tears of heartbreak, I was crying tears of relief.”

Samantha Casiano followed Brandt to give her testimony. 

Life-long residents of Texas, Casiano, her husband and her children were thrilled when she found out she was pregnant with what would have been her fifth child. But during a routine ultrasound, Casiano was informed her fetus had anencephaly, meaning it was missing parts of the brain and skull. The condition is incompatible with life. Devastated, she sought help from her obstetrician, who simply prescribed her an antidepressant and told her she had no other options because, as Casiano recounted, “the Texas abortion law prohibited it.”

For four hours, I had to watch my baby suffer. I kept telling myself and my baby, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you.’ There was no mercy there for her.

Samantha Casiano

“I felt I was abandoned,” said Casiano. “This was supposed to just be a scan day and it just escalated to me finding out my daughter would die inside or outside my womb.” 

Casiano briefly considered traveling out of the state, but decided it was not feasible due to obstacles she would face traveling, including financial constraints and potential legal complications. “I was scared I would get in trouble,” said Casiano. “I can’t go to jail. … I felt I had no options.” (Note: Current abortion bans subject only doctors and medical staff who provide abortions to criminal and civil prosecution, not the pregnant patient who receives the abortion.)

For months, Casiano was forced to carry her nonviable pregnancy to term. After going into labor, she delivered her daughter—whom she and her husband named Halo. Halo died just hours after birth. “For four hours, I had to watch my baby suffer,” Casiano testified. “I kept telling myself and my baby, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you.’ There was no mercy there for her.”

An abortion rights rally on June 25, 2022, in Austin, Texas, after The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health erased a federal right to an abortion. (Sergio Flores / Getty Images)

In her opening statement, Amy Pletscher, the defense counsel from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, dismissed the lawsuit as an “ideological crusade,” arguing that the women’s “pain is in the past” and “future harm is hypothetical.”

CRR attorneys, as well as the plaintiffs, disagree. “The experiences of the women—all of whom had wanted pregnancies—clearly demonstrate that the state’s abortion bans are endangering the health, fertility and lives of patients facing severe pregnancy complications,” said Duane. “The state can’t force you to be exposed to severe medical risk. … The court must act to immediately block these dangerous laws and prevent further irreparable harm to even more Texans.” 

Continue reading the second day of testimony, and next steps for the lawsuit, here.

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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.