Woman in Tennessee Was Denied Abortion Despite Fetus Growing Organs Outside Itself

Nicole Blackmon's horrific story is detailed as part of a new set of lawsuits filed on behalf of 8 women in 3 states who were denied emergency abortion care.

Woman in Tennessee Was Denied Abortion Despite Fetus Growing Organs Outside Itself
Photo:Splash Cinema/Center for Reproductive Rights

Nicole Blackmon learned she was pregnant about a month before Tennessee’s near-total abortion ban went into effect in July 2022. She’d previously been told conceiving a pregnancy would be difficult because of multiple health diagnoses, including a pseudotumor. Still, the pregnancy was a “blessing,” as her only child had been killed in a drive-by shooting months earlier.

At about 15 weeks, Blackmon learned her fetus likely had omphalocele (a condition that affects the development of the abdominal wall, leading to organs growing outside the body) and “atypically” positioned feet. She was told this was a “lethal anomaly.”

Blackmon’s now the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of three women and two doctors in Tennessee by pro-abortion advocacy groups. The suit is joined by a similar lawsuit in Idaho and an administrative complaint in Oklahoma. All three were filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of eight women, in total, who were denied abortion care, despite suffering horrific health complications in states that purport to have medical exceptions to their near-total abortion bans. But each state’s ban includes confusing language and possible criminal penalties, which is scaring providers away from helping patients whose medical conditions warrant emergency abortion care.

“With today’s filings, we are seeking to put an end to this chaos and give doctors clarity on when they can provide abortion care,” Marc Hearron, an attorney for the Center, said during a press call.

Tuesday’s lawsuits (and the administrative complaint) are a part of the Center’s latest legal strategy more than a year after the fall of Roe v. Wade. These legal actions—instead of challenging the various abortion bans themselves—contend that while the laws attempted “to promote healthy babies and families, it has done just the opposite.” Instead, lawmakers’ zeal to block abortion and bodily autonomy has left citizens unable to receive adequate care even, as in the case of Blackmon and other people, the patients stare death in the face due to life-threatening pregnancy complications.

Blackmon is joined by two doctors and two more plaintiffs: Allyson Phillips, who found out her daughter was incompatible with life at 18 weeks, and Kaitlyn Dulong, whose abortion care for cervical insufficiency was delayed more than a week because of Tennessee’s ban.

“Because of the state’s cruel laws, I was forced to carry a baby for months that was never going to live,” Blackmon said in a statement on Tuesday. “I was condemned to endure both physical and emotional torture, knowing that I was going to deliver a stillborn. How can Tennessee politicians stand by while this happens to people like me? I want some good to come out of my ordeal, so I am joining this case.”

These legal complaints follow the Center’s work in Texas, where more than a dozen women sued the state over its dangerously ambiguous exception to its own draconian abortion ban. (A district judge temporarily blocked the ban’s exception as applying to pregnancy complications in August, only to have the state attorney general appeal to the state Supreme Court hours later, blocking the order and leaving the vague exception in place.)

Photo:Splash Cinema/Center for Reproductive Rights

Jennifer Adkins learned she was pregnant on February 15, 2023. The Caldwell, Idaho, resident already had an unremarkable birth to a healthy boy in 2021, so Adkins and her husband were excited about this new addition to the family.

At an ultrasound appointment during her 12th week of pregnancy, doctors determined her fetus had Turner syndrome, where one X sex chromosome was missing. After explaining how the tests had determined the diagnosis, Adkins’s medical team explained how she would likely develop “mirror syndrome,” a life-threatening condition that can result in excessive swelling and preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy. Continuing her pregnancy could very well end Adkins’ life.

When the couple decided to terminate the pregnancy, Idaho’s abortion ban had doctors—including Adkins’s team—worried about even referring patients to out-of-state providers for fear of criminal penalties. The couple instead had to find a provider themselves, and Adkins was forced to travel to Oregon almost a week later to receive abortion care in late April 2023.

“I knew right away that I needed an abortion to save my life and to make sure that I was here and healthy for my family, including my now 2-year-old son,” Adkins said in a statement. “We had to scramble to come up with the funds to travel for an abortion. No one deserves this heartache.”

In Oklahoma, the legal strategy is a bit different. The Center filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based on the experience of Jaci Statton, who was turned away from the University of Oklahoma Medical Center (OUMC) in early 2023. Oklahoma has a total abortion ban except for when an abortion is “necessary to preserve” the patient’s life dating back to pre-Roe times.

Statton had a partial molar pregnancy, which could result in a non-viable pregnancy for the fetus, as well as hemorrhaging, infection, and even death if not treated. When she arrived at OUMC’s emergency room, she could barely walk, according to the complaint. “Despite how serious Jaci’s condition was, staff at OUMC did not provide her with the necessary stabilizing treatment—an abortion. Instead, they moved Jaci to Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, where providers told Jaci that she could die without treatment.”

The couple “begged” for an abortion and asked to speak to the ethics board to plead Statton’s case. Doctors told her they couldn’t provide abortion care unless she was actively dying in front of them, or at least on the verge of a heart attack. They suggested waiting in the hospital parking lot so she would be close by. The OU Health system said it is in compliance with all regulations. “Our physicians and staff remain steadfast and committed to providing the highest quality and compassionate care for women of all ages and stages of life,” OU Health told ABC News. “Our healthcare complies with state and federal laws and regulatory compliance standards. Our physicians and staff are aware of and follow state and federal laws.”

Instead of waiting around until her health collapsed, Statton was forced to drive three hours during her medical emergency to receive an abortion. “Oklahoma’s laws nearly killed me. It’s not safe to be pregnant in Oklahoma,” Statton said. “No one ever thinks they need an abortion, but I am living proof that abortion is healthcare.”

The two lawsuits await trial dates. The Oklahoma complaint requests an independent investigation into Statton’s case and for the federal government to take “all necessary steps” to fix future violations, including imposing penalties.

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