Meet the Doctor Who Did 67 Abortions the Day Before the Texas Ban

With the state's six-week abortion ban looming, Dr. Jasbir Ahluwalia worked into the night to perform abortions before the law took effect at midnight.
September 16, 2021, 6:03pm
Whole Woman's Health clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.
Whole Woman's Health clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

On Sept. 1, when Texas banned abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, Jasbir Ahluwalia’s job was totally upended. 

The 83-year-old OB-GYN works as an abortion provider at Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinics in north Texas. The night the ban took effect, Ahluwalia was working at the clinic in Fort Worth. He performed 67 abortions before the ban took effect at midnight—a rush to meet a deadline that even he acknowledged was “unheard-of.”

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The next day, when he came back to work, the ban was in full effect. Now, he can only perform abortions on a fraction of the patients who come to him for help, since about 85 percent of abortions in Texas take place after six weeks of pregnancy. But Ahluwalia says he has no plans to quit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE News: How did you become an abortion provider?

Jasbir Ahluwalia: I was born in East Africa, in Kenya. And then my family moved to Uganda. 

[The dictator] Idi Amin took over the country. And in August 1972, he declared that anyone who is not Black should leave the country in 90 days. 

About 80,000 to 90,000 people had to leave the country in 90 days. One young couple, I think this young woman’s about 25 years old, had a husband and two little children—one about 6, and a 3-year-old. She's pregnant, about eight weeks. They didn't have any idea where they're going to end up, maybe even separated or in different countries. Everybody was trying to find a country to go to. 

And so she had a back-alley abortion and ended up septic. [Starts to choke up.] I get very emotional about this.

She’s admitted to the hospital, very ill. And my old professor and I—we tried our best, but we could not save her. So her two children, her husband, watched her die. So this young, beautiful woman passed away because that country had [made abortion illegal].

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My professor and I—we retired to his office and we talked about it. And he said, ‘This is what happens when countries make abortions illegal.’ He said, ‘I have your application here. You want to enroll for OB-GYN residency? Do you have any problem learning to do abortions or any religious thing at all?’ I said, ‘Oh, no, not at all.’ ‘Then I'll take you in.’

Soon after, I was also expelled and went to London.

After I obtained my OB-GYN board certification at the Royal College of OB-GYN, I came over to Texas in 1977.

The night the Texas abortion ban went into effect, you were working at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Fort Worth. You did 67 abortions before the clock struck midnight. What was that like?

We knew we had to take care of each one of them.

There was one nurse who worked at a major hospital in Dallas, and she was waiting for her pill abortion. She waited there for three hours. And she had to go on duty the next night. And she didn't know—she waited. [She said,] ‘I know that very likely I may not be able to make it. But I was going to wait.’ And so about 15 minutes before midnight, I got her in and gave her the pill instructions and all that and she was out. She was very appreciative that she got her pill, at least. She was, what, eight weeks, and she would not have qualified [for an abortion under the new law].

[Starts to get choked up.] Nobody cared for their own welfare. The workers—they want to take care of the patients. That was an amazing, amazing attitude I saw for the first time in all these 50 years of practice of medicine.

We were joking, ‘There was plenty of food in the break room—nobody would go.’ They wanted to take care of every patient, bring them in, move and move and move. I saw tremendous, tremendous teamwork that night.

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This was like, ‘We're going to fight a war.’ This is a war against the politicians, and we're going to fight and win. We're not going to turn around anybody. And it went on by the book. We did not take any shortcuts. Everything was done properly. I was really amazed.

How were the patients?

The patients knew that that’s the last day, that the law is changing the next day. And they were all very calm. They knew that after midnight, we’ll not be able to take care of them. Those who were there at 11 o'clock, we told them that’s time running out. But they were all very nice. It all worked out in the end.

What about the protesters? Whole Woman’s Health founder Amy Hagstrom Miller has said that the clinic was “under surveillance” by anti-abortion activists, who turned lights on the parking lot once it got dark.

We were in the back, in the OR area. But it actually went on peacefully. There was no kind of any violence. They knew their limits, because we would have called the police.

Protesters can get violent. We've had incidents before, with other clinics. So not only do we take care of patients, our staff has to take the patient to the car after the surgery, make sure they're nicely tucked into the car before they drive off. So all these workers expose themselves with these crazy people out there.

So, you feel like you're going to war. You do manage to win it, you do manage to do all of these abortions. But then, minutes after you finish, this ban goes into effect. What was that whiplash like?

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Everybody went to bed at 2 o'clock. Next morning, at 8 o'clock, we were back there because we had some new patients we’re seeing. Not many came. 

The stenographer showed up again in the morning. We had coffee. We started doing sonograms. We turned some patients away. There's nobody in the clinic. It’s like an empty clinic.

You couldn't imagine the difference between night and day. And there's nothing we can do about it. It’s a law, it's in effect, we have to observe it. So it was a very sad, hollow feeling. Is this what we’re dealing with? Is it really true? Is it a dream that we have an empty clinic and patients are calling in and we cannot take care of them?

Basically, I'm still a surgeon and I cannot do surgeries. Wow. Is that so? Who decided that? Not the medical board. Not the doctors. But some crazy politicians.

Where am I? Am I in Myanmar or something like that? Or Rwanda? No, I'm not there. I'm in Texas and I’m told I can’t do the surgery. So what do I do with myself now? Sell shoes?

I'm 83 years old, and my plan is to go on and on and on until I can not do something physically or I think I'm not safe. But the way it seemed to me, before the law came in, that I'll probably go on for another 10 years helping women. Looks like that’s not gonna be true now, unless something happens.

If this was Myanmar, Rwanda, or one of those countries, I’d understand. I'll just leave those countries, like I did Uganda. But the United States? Countries are supposed to look at us, look at this country, as a leader, as an example to be copied. Is this what's going on here? That's what makes me sad. 

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The justice system here is all political. Is this the Supreme Court or has it come to kangaroo court? There was a problem, and they just decided on the politics of it, nothing else. 

It's a mess, and the whole world is looking. I'm getting texts and WhatsApp [messages] from all over the world: What's going on? What's going on? I mean, people are watching there, and some of them are laughing. And some of them are cracking jokes about this. 

I mean, they're comparing this to the Taliban. What's the difference? The Taliban hate women. 

Yes, you can call them the Taliban of Texas. They hate women. Have they ever passed a law saying, ‘Men should not get more than three shots of testosterone per week, or men cannot get more than five Viagra pills per week? Let's control that, that’s not good. We should have one pill per month. That’s all.’ No. Never, ever, ever. 

When you tell people they’re too far along, how do they handle it?

Some of them feel kind of really let down. They know already. They know what’s going on. So we are seeing more and more patients in the very early stages—five weeks or so, five weeks, three days, five weeks, two days, which is very unusual. 

But there’ll be some, quite a bit actually, who do not qualify, and they’re very disappointed. They don’t show emotionally. They don’t start bawling. When I finish, I hand them over to the counselor. I just tell them, ‘I’m sorry, you’re a little further along.’

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About 40 or 60 percent, we are not able to take care of them. The very few who do qualify, we are very careful. We are just totally complying with the law. We look at the sonogram—and we do a vaginal sonogram, not even abdominal, because they’re so much more sensitive, to make sure we don't miss anything. And we do send patients away.

We’ve got to stay with the law, whatever it is. So we do reject a lot of patients, and that's very sad. And it's not that these patients can take a flight, go down to New Mexico or drive to Oklahoma. Patients who barely even have enough funds to pay for the abortion when it’s here, we have to find funds for them—they're not able to go anywhere. These are the people who are going to suffer. 

How does it feel to reject so many people?

I really feel bad that so many are just barely over six weeks.

I saw one today who was a 20-year-old girl and she was, like, six weeks. Couldn’t help her. We gave her the information to go out of state. And I felt very sorry. 

I’ve taken care of 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds that come with their parents in the past.

A 15-, 16-year-old is now forced to carry a pregnancy to term, and they don’t have any resources to go out of state? That’s sad. That is absolutely sad. 

To me, that looks like the state is committing child abuse.

Are you afraid for your physical safety?

My two kids are always aware of that, that these things can happen. I'm never scared of that, not at all. As a Hindu, I believe in karma, and that whatever is going to happen—I may get in the car right now, cross the road, the street, somebody runs a red light. No, I'm not afraid of that at all. I will continue to serve and walk through the front door of an abortion clinic and take care of the patients.

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Are you afraid that the rest of the country will start trying to replicate Texas’ law?

Unless something is done, there’s no question.

We're left to the whims of the judges, who are appointed by whoever is there. This should have gone through the Congress a long time ago and made a constitutional law. End of the story. 

What if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion nationwide? The court is set to hear a case that could give them the opportunity to do just that.

We’ll be the laughingstock of the whole world. With that gone, there'll be not even five weeks. We will not be able to do anything. And of course, that means I won't be able to do anything. Just sit back and do some yard work and reflect on what has happened. But I don’t think that it's going to happen. That's not gonna happen. 

You really think the justices won’t overturn it?

If they try that, they would have overplayed their hand and they will regret it forever, because there will be a revolution.

If they do that, there will be a revolt among women, I can tell you. They will rise. 

Is there a point at which you would just stop and go, ‘Look, I'm not doing this job anymore that I really wanted to do, so I’m quitting’? Or are you committed to staying in it?

Oh, I’m committed 110 percent. 

I'm 83 years old, and my plan is to go on and on and on, until I can not do something physically or I think I'm not safe. But the way it seemed to me, before the law came in, that I'll probably go on for another 10 years helping women. Looks like that’s not going to be true now, unless something happens.

We have to throw these people out. We have to mobilize. We have to get whatever we can, and it can be done. We have a wonderful president—how did it happen? We all got people lined up on that night, and we voted for him. It can be done. So I'm very positive and not giving up. No, no. Things will change. And then we’ll be back again.