AUSTIN, Texas — When Dr. Austin Dennard went to an ultrasound appointment for her pregnancy last year, she promised herself she would close her eyes and listen for a fetal heartbeat. The Texas OB-GYN and mother of two had recently miscarried, and she desperately did not want to go through that pain again.
Sure enough, there was a heartbeat. But when Dennard opened her eyes and looked at the ultrasound image, she knew immediately that something was wrong. “I knew then this was never gonna be a brother or sister for my children,” Dennard said.
She was right: Her pregnancy was diagnosed with anencephaly, a lethal condition where a fetus does not have a fully formed skill or brain. Unable to get an abortion in her home state, the 6th-generation Texan fled to another for an abortion.
“I felt like my pregnancy was not my own, that it belonged to the state,” Dennard told a packed courtroom on Thursday. Now roughly eight months pregnant, Dennard is hoping that no other person in Texas will have to experience what she and her family went through.
Thursday marked the second day of testimony in a lawsuit filed by 13 women, including Dennard, who have sued the state after they were denied abortions. Although Texas has banned almost all abortions, its abortion laws dictate that people in medical emergencies should be able to undergo the procedure—and these women say that, because they all faced medical crises, they should have been legally allowed to end their pregnancies.
The case, which seeks to clarify the medical exceptions that permit people to get abortions, is the first of its kind since the overturning of Roe v. Wade this week. This week is also believed to represent the first time that women denied abortions have testified in court about their experiences since Roe fell, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the women.
But while Wednesday, the first day of the hearing, focused on the emotional testimony delivered by these women, Thursday featured far more legal fireworks. Attorneys for Texas, which is arguing that the law does not need to be changed, took every opportunity to try to get the case tossed out of court.
Assistant Texas Attorney General Johnathan Stone argued that both of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses should have their testimony stricken. Neither of the witnesses, who are doctors, practice in Texas nor have experience with medical exceptions for abortions. “All he can do is speculate about what a Texas physician would do,” Stone told District Judge Jessica Mangrum of one witness.
That witness, Dr. Aaron Caughey, is an OB-GYN who has published research about the impact of abortion bans. Caughey also sparked another spat when he refused to divulge the name of Texas doctors who he had talked to about Texas’ abortion bans, as Stone tried to use that refusal as grounds to discredit Caughey’s testimony. (Caughey said he didn’t want to reveal the names because of the level of violence directed against abortion providers. Since 1977, at least 11 people have been killed in anti-abortion attacks.)
That argumentative approach, however, ran into roadblocks with Dennard. Stone turned Dennard’s cross-examination over to Assistant Attorney General Amy Pletscher, who also led the questioning of the female plaintiffs on Wednesday. Pletscher asked Dennard whether Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is vocally anti-abortion, had told her that she could not have an abortion in Texas—a question that Pletscher asked of all the plaintiffs.
“You know, I never got to ask him,” Dennard answered.
And when Pletscher asked if any Texas officials had told her that she could not have an abortion, Dennard replied, “I don’t think they even knew I was pregnant.”
Dennard’s icy, ironic answers went over well with the plaintiffs in the courtroom, who tittered and smiled at her comebacks. “She nailed it,” one of the plaintiff’s partners whispered after Dennard left the stand.
Amanda Zurawski, another plaintiff in the case who testified on Wednesday, said that she found the questioning from the Texas attorneys to be “nothing but callousness.”
“I survived sepsis and I don't think today was much less traumatic than that,” she told reporters on Wednesday.
The language used in court also infuriated Taylor Edwards, a plaintiff in the case who did not testify but attended both days of testimony. At one point on Thursday, Texas’ sole witness, OB-GYN Dr. Ingrid Skop, used the term “D&E dismemberment abortion” to refer to an abortion procedure known as a “dilation and evacuation.” (Skop also works for the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute.)
Edwards sprinted out of the room when Skop used the term. Her anguished wails could still be heard from inside the courtroom.
“The state’s argument today was using language that was incredibly hurtful to me, personally, as somebody who has undergone a D&E abortion,” Edwards said at a press conference after the hearing. “I got a medical procedure done that was necessary. And anything else outside of that is just inflaming the already very, very, highly emotional situation. For me, this has been incredibly difficult.”
“It really felt like another gut punch quite honestly, hearing her testifying going on and on and on,” Edwards continued. “It just felt like, ‘Oh, my state truly doesn’t care.’”
Preliminary data from the the Texas Department of State Health Services, obtained by CNN on Thursday, suggests that Texas’ abortion bans—one of which dates back to 2021, before the overturning of Roe—may be contributing to a rise in infant mortality in the state. Infant deaths in the state rose by 11.5 percent between 2021 and 2022. More babies are also now being born in the state, as recent research suggests that Texas’ 2021 six-week abortion ban may have led to almost 10,000 births.
At the end of the hearing, Mangrum said that she would likely take several weeks to issue a ruling.
Afterward, Molly Duane, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, cautioned that even a win in the case would not do enough, in her opinion. Clarifying Texas’ abortion laws and their approach to medical exceptions would not erase the overarching ban on the procedure in the state.
“Even if we win in this case, it'll be a very small number of patients in Texas who are getting abortions,” Duane said. "There's a lot more work to do.”
Then she smiled, and added, "But we're young. We have time."