NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More women across the U.S. filed lawsuits on Tuesday challenging abortion restrictions that went into effect in Republican-led states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
Eight women in Idaho and Tennessee are asking state courts to place holds on their states’ abortion laws after being denied access to the procedure while facing harrowing pregnancy complications that they say endangered their lives. Four physicians have also joined the lawsuits, saying the state laws have wrongly forced medical experts to weigh the health of a patient against the threat of legal liability.
A woman in Oklahoma who said she had a dangerous and nonviable pregnancy filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday asserting that she was denied an abortion despite a U.S. law that requires doctors to perform the procedure when it’s medically necessary.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs, filed a similar lawsuit earlier this year in Texas that is widely seen as the model for legal action against state anti-abortion laws that don’t allow exceptions for the mother’s health or fatal fetal anomalies. A judge recently ruled that the Texas ban was too restrictive, but that injunction has since been blocked as the case is appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
“It is clear that in filing that lawsuit in Texas we had hit the tip of a very large iceberg,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Like the Texas lawsuit, none of the complaints filed Tuesday are seeking to overturn the states’ abortion bans. Instead, in Idaho and Tennessee, the plaintiffs are arguing that the bans violate pregnant patients’ right to life as guaranteed by the states’ constitutions and ask the state courts to clarify the circumstances that qualify patients to legally receive an abortion. Among the circumstances they want included are fatal diagnoses. In Oklahoma, the complaint seeks a declaration that the federal law preempts Oklahoma’s abortion ban.
Spokespersons for attorneys general in Idaho and Tennessee, which are both named as defendants in the cases, did not respond to emailed requests for comment. A spokesperson for OU Health, the hospital named in the Oklahoma complaint, also did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The legal challenges filed Tuesday comprise deeply personal testimonies from women who were denied abortion services and physicians who were terrified of violating the states’ abortion bans.
In Tennessee, Nicole Blackmon said that when she found out she was pregnant in 2022, she considered it a blessing after her 14-year-old son, Daniel, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. Learning she would soon have another child was a happy surprise as she grieved and battled several health conditions, including hypertension, she said.
Blackmon stopped taking her medications in order to protect her fetus, but a 15-week ultrasound showed that several of the baby’s major organs were growing outside its stomach, and it would likely not survive. Yet despite the fatal diagnosis, her medical team told her she didn’t have the option to have an abortion because of the ban that quickly went into effect in Tennessee after Roe was overturned.
Blackmon said she would have preferred to have an abortion, but could not afford to travel out of state. She eventually delivered a stillborn baby, she told reporters Tuesday. She said her depression and anxiety worsened knowing that she was going to lose a second child the same year she lost the first.
“People need to understand that what happened to me could happen to someone they love,” Blackmon said.
Dr. Emily Corrigan, one of the physicians involved in the Idaho lawsuit, said she often struggles to understand what care she can legally provide to her pregnant patients.
Currently in Idaho, it is a crime — punishable by two to five years in prison — to perform or attempt to perform an abortion. The law states that it is also illegal for health care professionals to assist in an abortion or an attempt to provide one, with the penalty being the suspension or loss of their medical license.
“I have to ask myself every day if it’s worth it to live here,” Corrigan said.
Fellow Idaho plaintiff Jennifer Adkins said she was denied an abortion after learning through an ultrasound that her 12-week-old fetus likely had Turner syndrome, a rare condition in which one of a female fetus’s X chromosomes is missing or partially missing. The fetus Adkins was carrying also had fluid buildup, signaling a potentially fatal condition called hydrops.
It wasn’t possible to end her pregnancy in Idaho, so she was forced to travel to a clinic in Portland, Oregon, a 6 ½-hour drive away. Born and raised in Idaho, Adkins said the state’s restrictive law is “unthinkable” and “disgusting.”
Jaci Statton, who filed the federal complaint in Oklahoma, said she nearly died during a pregnancy that her doctors told her was nonviable. She said she was told to wait in a hospital parking lot until her conditioned worsened enough to qualify for life-saving care.
Statton’s complaint comes after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year informed hospitals that they must provide abortion services if the mother’s life is at risk. DHHS said the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act supersedes state abortion bans that don’t have adequate exceptions for medical emergencies.
In response, the state of Texas sued the federal government, contending that the DHHS guidance mandated by President Joe Biden’s administration is unlawful and that the federal law doesn’t cover abortions. The case is still pending.