More Women Join Lawsuit Saying Tennessee Abortion Ban Threatened Their Lives

Tennessee bans nearly all abortions, offering only a narrow exception for medical emergencies. These women say they were denied life-saving care anyway.

More Women Join Lawsuit Saying Tennessee Abortion Ban Threatened Their Lives

On Monday, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) announced that four more women joined their lawsuit against Tennessee’s abortion ban. These new plaintiffs join three other women who say their health, safety, and lives were threatened by being denied emergency abortion care for unsafe pregnancies in Tennessee as part of Blackmon v. State of Tennessee, filed in September. Two of the new plaintiffs—Kathryn Archer and Monica Kelly—are currently pregnant and due to give birth in May and June respectively.

Tennessee bans abortion beginning at conception with exceptions only for endangerment to the life of the pregnant person, to preserve their health, or if the fetus isn’t viable. CRR argues that in practice, pregnant people experiencing these medical emergencies are still denied care as doctors have no sense of when these exceptions do and do not apply. Linda Goldstein, senior counsel at CRR who’s representing the plaintiffs, told Jezebel that Tennessee’s abortion laws are a source of “heightened anxiety” for Archer and Kelly amid their current pregnancies, after suffering through the trauma of being denied emergency abortion care by the state during their last pregnancies. “It’s that much more frightening to be pregnant in Tennessee,” Goldstein said.

Archer was 20 weeks pregnant with her second child when she learned her fetus suffered from severe fetal anomalies that included irregular brain development and improperly developed organs incompatible with human life. She was forced to travel to D.C. for an emergency abortion after being unable to get care in her home state. Meanwhile, Kelly was in her 12th week of pregnancy with what also would have been her second child when she learned her fetus suffered from Trisomy 13, a severe fetal condition, and that her fetus was unlikely to survive. Kelly’s doctors warned that continuing the nonviable pregnancy put her at risk of life-threatening infections, but she was still unable to get emergency abortion care in Tennessee and had to travel to Florida for the procedure. In a press release shared with Jezebel, Kelly said she was “inspired to join this lawsuit after hearing other women in the case speak out against the abortion ban that caused my family such grief and trauma.”

The two other new plaintiffs, Rebecca Milner and Rachel Fulton, suffered from similar pregnancy complications and were also denied emergency abortion care. Milner was 20 weeks pregnant when she learned she suffered from preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM) and her fetus was unlikely to survive; she was ultimately able to travel to Virginia for an emergency abortion, but then became infected with sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition, and needed to be hospitalized for several days upon returning to Tennessee. “The only reason she had sepsis was the delay in terminating a pregnancy that was completely nonviable,” Goldstein said. According to Goldstein, Milner’s experience shows how, even if someone is able to get emergency abortion care out-of-state, the “delay itself can still threaten someone’s life.” States with abortion bans like Tennessee’s “are delaying care until patients are showing active signs of infection or hemorrhage, which can already be too late.”

Fulton learned her fetus suffered from severe conditions leaving key organs inadequately developed and had to travel to Illinois for emergency care. “My grandmother died in childbirth, leaving behind seven children, so when my doctors explained that my fetus wouldn’t survive and that my own health was at serious risk, all I could think about was my three-year-old son who needs his mom to be alive to take care of him,” Fulton said in a statement shared with Jezebel. “We had been so excited for baby Titus to join our family, and the twenty-hour round trip journey to have an abortion made a terrible situation even worse. I felt like my life and health had no value.”

According to the Center, Milner and Fulton both wish to have children—but they fear being pregnant again in the state of Tennessee. Goldstein told Jezebel this is a common sentiment she’s heard from Tennessee women who have contacted CRR. When the Center first filed the lawsuit, she recalls that CRR’s “phones lit up with calls from people who were forced to endure similar horror stories,” and who are still petrified to ever be pregnant in the state again. Goldstein pointed to the testimony of another of the plaintiffs, Nicole Blackmon, who says she suffered “physical and emotional torture” from being forced to carry a nonviable pregnancy for months. She’s since had her tubes tied out of fear of ever being pregnant again in Tennessee. Blackmon was 15 weeks into her wanted pregnancy when she learned her fetus suffered from omphalocele, a condition that impedes the development of the fetus’ abdominal wall and results in organs growing outside the body. She was unable to get an emergency abortion in Tennessee, continued her pregnancy even as it threatened her health, and ultimately had a stillbirth.

But as a result of Blackmon’s decision to get her tubes tied, because of how traumatic it was to be pregnant in Tennessee, the state argued in November that Blackmon no longer had standing to sue… because she had her tubes tied so she’s unlikely to become pregnant again, thereby the ban no longer affects her. This, Goldstein argues, is part of Tennessee’s strategy to “deflect blame onto anyone but them” for pregnant people’s suffering under state law.

In Texas, we’ve seen similarly grotesque attempts from the state to try and smear plaintiffs who are suing for clarity around the medical emergency exception of Texas’ abortion ban. In July, Texas tried to throw out CRR’s lawsuit by claiming that, because some of the plaintiffs’ fertility had been impacted as a result of being denied emergency abortion care by the very abortion laws in question, these women didn’t have standing to sue. The state also referenced a fundraiser one of the plaintiffs created to crowdsource the high costs of burying her fetus and implied the plaintiffs had only joined the suit for monetary gain.

As CRR challenges abortion bans in four states including Tennessee, Goldstein told Jezebel there’s a central throughline in all of these cases. “They show exceptions don’t work—that’s really the bottomline,” she said. “Even before Roe was overturned, these exceptions have always just been window dressing to make abortion bans look reasonable. The language is too vague and too difficult for doctors to be able to apply to save someone’s life—and that’s the entire point.”

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