The drive from Texas to the clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., took 10 hours. It was mid-April of this year. There wasn’t much to see along the mostly barren stretch, and there wasn’t much for Kailee DeSpain to do aside from think about where she was going and why.
Her husband was driving. She sensed his nervous glances toward the passenger seat where she sat struggling to quiet her thoughts.
No, she wasn’t having any pain, she told him. No, she wasn’t feeling like she did the last time or the two times before that.
This pregnancy was different. It was the first in which she feared for her own life. Her fetus – Finley – had triploidy, a rare chromosomal abnormality. Because of the condition, which affects 1%-3% of pregnancies, his heart, brain, and kidneys were not developing properly.
At 19 weeks, Finley was already struggling to draw breath from lungs squeezed inside an overcrowded chest cavity. Ms. DeSpain wanted nothing more than to carry Finley to term, hold him, meet him even for a moment before saying goodbye.
But his condition meant he would likely suffocate in utero well before that. And Ms. DeSpain knew that carrying him longer would likely raise her risk of bleeding and of her blood pressure increasing to dangerous highs.
“This could kill you,” her husband told her. “Do you realize you could die bringing a baby into this world who is not going to live? I don’t want to lose you.’”
Unlike her other pregnancies, the timing of this one and the decision she faced to end it put her health in even greater danger.
On Sept. 1, 2021, a bill went into effect in Texas that banned abortions from as early as 6 weeks’ gestation. Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB8) became one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. It prohibited abortions whenever a fetal heartbeat, defined by lawmakers, could be detected on an ultrasound, often before many women knew they were pregnant.
The Texas abortion law was hardly the last word on the topic. Ms. DeSpain didn’t know it on her drive to New Mexico in April, but the U.S. Supreme Court was weeks away from overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
On June 24, the Supreme Court delivered its 6-3 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that granted women the right to abortion.
This decision set in motion “trigger laws” in some states – laws that essentially fully banned abortions. Those states included Ms. DeSpain’s home state of Texas, where abortion is now a felony except when the life of the mother is in peril.
However, legal definitions of what qualifies as “life-threatening” remain murky.
The law is unclear, says Lisa Harris, MD, PhD, professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “What does the risk of death have to be, and how imminent must it be?” she asked in a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. Is 25% enough? 50%? Or does a woman have to be moments from dying?
“This whole thing makes me so angry,” says Shikha Jain, MD, a medical oncologist at University of Illinois Health, Chicago. “A patient may not be experiencing an emergency right now, but if we don’t take care of the situation, it may become an emergency in 2 hours or 2 days.”
Even before the Roe v. Wade decision, pregnancy had been a high-stakes endeavor for many women. In 2019, more than 750 women died from pregnancy-related events in the United States. In 2020, that number rose to 850. Each year dozens more suffer pregnancy-related events that require lifesaving interventions.
Now, in a post-Roe world, the number of maternal deaths will likely climb as more abortion bans take effect and fewer women have access to lifesaving care, experts say. A 2021 study that compared 2017 maternal mortality rates in states with different levels of abortion restrictions found that the rate of maternal mortality was almost two times higher in states that restricted abortion access compared with those that protected it – 28.5 per 100,000 women vs. 15.7.
Some women living in states with abortion bans won’t have the resources to cross state lines for care.
“This is just going to widen the health care disparities that are already so prevalent in this country,” Dr. Jain says.