More than a dozen women and doctors sued Texas earlier this year over the state’s anti-abortion statutes, which outlaw the procedure while still carving out exceptions for life-threatening medical crises. The plaintiffs argue that the uncertainty surrounding what constitutes such an emergency has endangered pregnant Texans' lives.
They’re now asking a judge to clarify the meaning of the abortion bans’ medical exceptions.
Simpson Tuegel said she’s consulted with women who’ve been faced with that life-threatening scenario.
“Providers are afraid to even tell them or say the word, and so, they have to go out of state if they're going to access that care,” she said. “What a scary thing when … you're already at a high risk, and it's a situation where then you have sepsis or other complications, and there's an emergency — but we have to wait until that point.”
In 2021, Simpson Tuegel filed a lawsuit challenging Senate Bill 8, which critics have blasted as one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bans. It prohibits most abortions in Texas — as early as six weeks — and lets just about anyone in the U.S. sue providers in the state.
The lawyer credited as being the architect of SB 8, Jonathan Mitchell, told NPR that the ban was designed to “draw a clear distinction between abortions that are medically necessary” and those that are “purely elective.” He said that only the latter were intended to be unlawful.
Meanwhile, under Texas’ so-called trigger law, doctors who perform abortions risk getting slapped with felony charges that could lead to a sentence of up to life in prison. So, Simpson Tuegel said, it’s no surprise that doctors have to “interpret a medical emergency as severely as it can be to protect themselves from some really harsh penalties.
“That's the reality, that women's lives and health are in that balance,” she added. “And that's going to continue to put women's lives at risk in Texas.”
But Kimberlyn Schwartz, the director of media and communication for Texas Right to Life, doesn’t think that the state's medical emergency definition needs to be amended or clarified. She told the Observer via email that it’s been the law long before the trigger ban took effect and SB 8 was enacted.
“The definition does not require imminence of death or major bodily injury before a physician can act in these cases to save the mother’s life,” she said. “What could be further clarified is the implementation — making clear to doctors that imminence is not required and assuaging their fear of penalty for acting to save a mother’s life. The executive branch or medical lobby could provide guidelines to explain this to Texas physicians.”
“That doesn't seem to put the health and well-being of the woman at the center at all.” – Michelle Simpson Tuegel, Dallas attorney
Some Texans seeking abortion services have traveled elsewhere to access care. Planned Parenthood reported that in the first several months after SB 8 took effect, health centers in surrounding states witnessed a nearly 800% spike in Texas abortion patients compared with the previous year.
Simpson Tuegel represents survivors of sexual violence and said it’s her job to connect them with resources. She thinks that no one should be forced to face an unwanted pregnancy, especially if they didn’t have a choice in the matter.
The climate surrounding reproductive rights has become increasingly stormy in recent years. Simpson Tuegel cited the May killing of a Dallas woman police believe was murdered by her boyfriend after she’d received an abortion in Colorado.
“I think a lot of the surrounding messaging and the environment that these laws create is not one of well-being or freedom for the woman,” Simpson Tuegel said. “It's going back decades, where women don't have a choice and men believe that it's really whatever they want, rather than the health and well-being of the person who is carrying.”
Simpson Tuegel also noted that not everyone in need of an abortion actually wants to terminate their pregnancy. She said she’s never spoken with anyone who takes that choice lightly.
The fact that these people may not receive care until their lives are in imminent danger “really flies in the face” of what anti-abortion advocates are arguing, she said. And the confusion surrounding medical exceptions may mean that providers have to consult a hospital committee to determine whether they can act, she added.
“That doesn't seem to put the health and well-being of the woman at the center at all,” she said. “It seems that [anti-abortion advocates] care more about a fetus than they do about the health and well-being of the person carrying it, and women's lives will continue to be at risk.”