Doctors Say Patients Are Scared to Ask Basic Pregnancy Questions in Chilling Senate Briefing

Abortion bans across the U.S. have created such menacing legal risks that patient-provider relationships have fundamentally changed.

Doctors Say Patients Are Scared to Ask Basic Pregnancy Questions in Chilling Senate Briefing
Dr. Austin Dennard speaks during a briefing about the state of abortion rights in the U.S. on January 17, 2024, in Washington, D.C. Photo:Getty Images

On Wednesday, Democratic senators hosted a briefing featuring testimony from two abortion providers and feminist author Jessica Valenti about the lived toll of abortion bans nearly 1.5 years after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade—and just before the 51st anniversary of Roe next week. At one point, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.) asked Dr. Austin Dennard, a Texas-based OB/GYN who was denied an emergency abortion in 2022 after Roe fell, whether Dennard agrees with Republican claims that “the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision are overblown.” Dennard, who’s been directly impacted by Texas’ abortion laws as both a patient and health care provider, responded that the consequences of abortion bans have spiraled beyond what most of us could fathom, particularly where medical privacy is concerned.

Patients, she explained, are afraid to ask basic questions about pregnancy and their health out of fear that they or their doctors could face criminal charges. (Texas’ abortion ban threatens providers who violate the law with the possibility of life in prison and $100,000 in fines.) “The amount of fear that is induced now for individuals who are considering pregnancy, considering growing their families, who come to my office—even if it’s an annual exam just for a routine checkup—with questions, means some of them are too afraid to even ask me what their rights are,” Dennard said. “Because they fear putting me in a litigious situation. So, you don’t even get the medical care you need. You can’t even ask questions of your doctor for fear that either you’ll be at legal risk, or you’ll put your doctor at legal risk.”

Dennard, who is also a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit demanding that the state of Texas clarify the medical emergency exception in its abortion ban, added that “the most intimate moments are between a physician—an OBGYN specifically—and their patient talking about their bodies and their life.” But now, “it’s as if someone’s standing in my office room telling us what we can and cannot talk about.”

From left: Dr. Serina Floyd, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Dr. Dennard, and author Jessica Valenti. Photo:Sen. Patty Murray/YouTube

Dennard’s remarks before Senate Democrats come as legal experts and patients have raised concerns about privacy and the threat of health decisions—or even miscarriages and pregnancy complications—being policed since Roe fell. In March, another plaintiff in the aforementioned Texas lawsuit told the New York Times that when she learned about her terminal fetal diagnosis, she and her husband “didn’t even feel safe Googling options” out of fear of surveillance and prosecution. As a result of receiving severely delayed emergency abortion care due to Texas’ ban, the woman, Amanda Zurawski, contracted sepsis twice and had such intense scar tissue that one of her fallopian tubes permanently closed.

Dr. Serina Floyd, another OB/GYN and chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., also spoke on Wednesday and similarly attested to how the threat of criminalization has fundamentally changed conversations in examination rooms. “The effects aren’t felt only by abortion providers. Practitioners of various medical disciplines—OB/GYN, emergency medicine, primary care—are being forced to question whether they can provide care in line with their medical judgment and expertise,” Floyd said, referencing the experiences of health care providers in states where abortion is banned. She continued, “Providers and their teams are attempting to make sense of confusing and ambiguous laws, while managing the fear and anxiety of possible criminalization, just for doing their jobs.”

In February 2023, Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who attended Wednesday’s briefing, introduced a bill to ban medical providers from disclosing information on abortion or pregnancy loss without patients’ consent in court proceedings. Shortly after, the Biden administration’s Health and Human Services Department introduced a new rule last April to prevent health care workers from reporting patients to the police if they suspect them of self-managing an abortion. Polling from Data for Progress has shown 80% of likely voters prefer stronger privacy protections for patients’ reproductive health records.

“Evidence shows that women denied abortion care are more likely to experience serious medical conditions during the end of pregnancy, more likely to remain in violent relationships, and are more likely to experience economic hardship and financial insecurity,” Floyd said.

The senate briefing delved into a range of extreme conditions that abortion bans have inflicted on patients and providers, from a child rape victim in Ohio forced to travel to Indiana for abortion care, to people with nonviable fetuses (including at least one case of a young Texan woman whose fetus lacked a head) being denied abortions. “Why would anyone want to deliberately create a world where women are forced to be walking coffins?” Valenti said. “It is inexplicable, until you understand that this has nothing to do with families or babies, but enforcing a worldview that says it’s women’s job to be pregnant and to stay pregnant, no matter what the cost or consequence.”

Despite these increasingly common realities, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) claimed Republican lawmakers are trying to dodge the consequences of their laws with “spin, or rebranding, or by sticking their heads in the sand.” But “this isn’t a PR problem for women,” she said, “it is a living hell, and a personal nightmare.”

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