Texas’ New Abortion Law Is Driving Women to Extremes
The 20-week abortion ban forced one woman to pawn her wedding ring and flee to Arkansas to terminate her pregnancy.
In late June, when state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg took to the floor of the Texas House in an electric-blue power suit and proposed a ban on abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy, Sarah Guler wasn’t worried. In fact, she had no idea the fight over abortion was happening. When state Sen. Wendy Davis famously stood for 11 hours to block the bill and when the Texas statehouse became so crammed with protestors that state troopers sealed the doors, even then the news didn’t reach Sarah. As a busy mom in suburban Houston, she didn’t think much about politics. Instead she was preoccupied with child rearing, volunteer work and part-time studies. (Sarah Guler isn’t her real name. The Observer agreed not to reveal her name or certain identifying details.) In September Sarah learned she was pregnant. She and her husband called it their “miracle child.” Because of Sarah’s health problems and two complicated pregnancies, they had feared she’d never conceive again. Now they felt like the luckiest couple alive.
In October, not long into Sarah’s first trimester, Texas’ new anti-abortion bill took effect. Part of the new law required abortion physicians to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The clause involved so much red tape, and proved so difficult to satisfy, that overnight one-third of Texas’ abortion clinics stopped taking patients. Legal challenges ricocheted around the federal courts, causing the media to focus on the distances women now had to travel to get an abortion. The ban on abortions after 20 weeks wasn’t part of the legal challenges, and neither the state health department nor doctors’ groups issued any guidance to health providers or abortion clinics about how they should comply with the new 20-week ban. So it slipped quietly and largely unremarked into law.
A few days before Christmas, the Gulers went to the obstetrician’s office for the 19-week ultrasound. They wanted to know whether to hang a pink or a blue stocking by the fireplace. But they never did find out the gender. Instead they learned that their miracle child had a brain defect so severe that the doctor described it as incompatible with life. Gasping, Sarah asked whether surgery or drugs could fix the condition, but the doctor shook his head. “If you’re looking for a baby that’s going to go to school and play soccer,” he told her, “this is not that child.” The doctor offered to do extra tests but added that the results would be the same. The baby would most likely be stillborn and if it survived birth, would suffer seizures every day of its short life. “If that were me,” Sarah thought, “I’d rather go to God.”
But she and her husband were in for another shock. When Sarah asked when the doctor could schedule an induction to abort the fetus, he shook his head. “We don’t do that here.” Instead, he gave her a list of abortion clinics and told her that she had only seven days to get an abortion. “You have to hurry because there’s a ban,” the doctor told them. “You’re already at 19 weeks. By next Friday, it will be too late.”
In the car on the way home, Sarah began calling the clinics on the list. Only two of them offered abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. What followed was an odyssey of dead ends. Most clinics told her that they only offered abortions up to 16 weeks. One in Dallas referred her to a clinic in New Mexico, but that clinic couldn’t see her until January because it was closed for the holidays. Another clinic in Houston could schedule her on Dec. 26, but after a 24-hour mandatory waiting period she would be too far along to legally abort the fetus. Each receptionist gave Sarah another number to call until eventually she realized she had called some clinics twice. Sarah began to panic. She realized that if she failed to find a clinic in the next week, she would have to spend the remainder of her pregnancy waiting for the baby to die in utero.
“Texas can’t help us,” she said to her husband. “What the hell, let’s call Arkansas.”