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My Patient Asked If She'd Be Sentenced to Death for Having an Abortion

As patients—and even doctors—get misinformation about the status of abortion bans, fear is spreading. But people continue to seek abortions regardless.

by Paige Alexandria
Dec 19 2019, 11:00am

In April, Texas lawmakers introduced a bill that would have banned abortion and made it possible to impose the death penalty on both providers and patients. While HB896 failed to make it past its initial hearing, its impacts remain. As a counselor at an abortion provider in the state, I’ve unfortunately had to answer questions about whether people who have abortions will get the death penalty.

Usually when I’m asked this question, it goes like this: "Will I be sentenced to death for having an abortion if the government finds out I was here?" While I’m not surprised to hear this in one of the nation's most restrictive states, it does surprise me that people still come into the clinic when this is a concern. It truly puts into perspective that even if abortion is banned—even if patients and providers would be risking incarceration or death—people will still have abortions. It’s a necessary part of healthcare, after all.

Other states are trying out similar laws to the one that failed here. A bill proposed in Ohio last month would ban abortion without exceptions and threaten patients and providers with “abortion murder,” a criminal offense which carries up to life in prison. An additional offense termed “aggravated abortion murder” could carry the death penalty, too.

In July, an Ohio federal judge temporarily blocked a “heartbeat” bill that would have banned abortion as early as six weeks; criminalizing doctors who perform it. Other states—including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana—blocked similar legislation as well. But that doesn’t mean the damage wasn’t already done. Patients have heard about these bills.

Cassidy, whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy, needed to have an abortion in Ohio earlier this year, after the state's six-week ban had been signed into law. Although Ohio’s ban never went into effect, she still faced extreme barriers related to it. First, an OB/GYN told her incorrectly that abortion was illegal, and refused to refer her to a provider in the state.

“She asked me if I understood that we could both be punished by law if I had an abortion, even though she didn’t perform that type of procedure to begin with," Cassidy said. "I was completely terrified.”

Chrisse France, executive director of Preterm, one of Ohio’s largest independent abortion providers, said her clinic contacted doctors after the bill passed to make sure they were giving accurate information. “We heard referrals weren’t being given, so we sent postcards to OB/GYNs in the area that said abortion is legal with a list of local abortion providers,” she said.

France also shared in a recent op-ed with The Columbus Dispatch that Preterm gets daily calls from people asking if they can get an abortion in the state. “Those who do visit us have said they didn’t call until someone else in their life told them abortion was legal,” France told VICE.

Cassidy learned she was pregnant very early. When she found a nearby abortion clinic on her own, they told her they couldn’t see her until she was six weeks along; likely to have the best chance of confirming a pregnancy with an ultrasound. But because of the confusion surrounding the six-week bill, Cassidy—with good reason—was afraid this meant she wouldn’t be able to have an abortion at all if she waited.

“I really didn’t know what to do at that point. I was so scared a doctor would call the cops on me and I’d go to jail,” she said. Cassidy ended up traveling home to West Virginia for her abortion. But for those who can’t travel, I can’t help but wonder how many people continued pregnancies they didn’t want, or attempted an unsafe method of ending it on their own.

France believes some Ohioans aren’t even trying to access abortion in their home state. Instead, like Cassidy, they feel their right to healthcare is compromised and travel to a nearby state if they’re able. Despite fearing the procedure has been banned, patients are still determined to access the care they need.

In Kentucky, Malia, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, experienced signs of a failed abortion after the state's six-week ban passed in March, but before it went into effect. She tried to seek follow-up care at the state’s only provider where she initially went for the abortion, but they told her they weren't scheduling appointments until the bill was blocked by a judge. (Kentucky is one of six states with only one abortion clinic left.)

Instead, Malia went to a local ER and had an ultrasound which showed that her medication abortion had indeed failed. While this method is very effective, it does have a small failure rate; 2 to 4 people out of 100 may remain pregnant.

“The ER explained that the pregnancy was showing as normal and they couldn’t help me,” she said. Malia had to remain pregnant until the clinic was able to see her several days later “when they got notice from court,'' she told me. She had a surgical abortion.

Stephanie Sherwood, the executive director of Women Have Options—Ohio’s statewide abortion fund—says that while they have heard some concerns about the death penalty, which aren’t well-founded, patients have good reason to fear government surveillance.

Missouri made national headlines recently when the state health director, Randall Williams, admitted to tracking patients' menstrual cycles in a spreadsheet and requested the identities of those who experienced failed abortions. Sherwood said these concerns “aren’t so far-fetched,” and that their organization takes steps to ensure their digital security is up-to-date.

Sherwood also said that while patients and providers are concerned about the legality surrounding abortion, they’re also concerned about continuous harassment outside of the government; including “being personally targeted by right-wing terrorists.” And yet, people still have abortions every single day.

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