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Members of U.S. Senate, advocates discuss problems in states that limit abortion access


Members of U.S. Senate, advocates discuss problems in states that limit abortion access

Jan 17, 2024 | 2:17 pm ET
By Jennifer Shutt
Members of U.S. Senate, advocates discuss problems in states that limit abortion access
Abortion rights activists react to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, D.C. The decision overturned Roe v Wade and the constitutional right to abortion. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Abortion rights advocates and Democrats in the U.S. Senate pressed for a return to legal, safe access throughout the country during a briefing Wednesday.

The nearly three-hour conversation, held in the Capitol Visitors Center, featured doctors speaking about the challenges they and their patients face in states that have implemented restrictions on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

“As an OB-GYN I know firsthand that everyone’s reason for needing an abortion is valid and personal,” said Dr. Austin Dennard, a Texas physician who is one of the women suing the state over its abortion laws. “Even planned, prayed-for pregnancies can end in abortion.”

Dennard said she’s heard from patients who are fearful about starting a family or growing the size of their family over concerns that if something goes wrong and they need an abortion, they’ll have to travel out of state. Others worry they wouldn’t have the resources or time away from work to travel to end their pregnancy should something go wrong.

Anti-abortion laws, Dennard said, have “taken so much joy out of what should be an enormously joyful chapter in someone’s life.”

March for Life to hear from Johnson, Smith

The event came just ahead of the annual March for Life this weekend, where people who oppose abortion access will travel to Washington, D.C., to call for a nationwide ban.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, and GOP Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey are both scheduled to speak during that event.

During Wednesday’s briefing, Senate Democrats decried efforts to restrict when and how patients can end a pregnancy and spoke about two cases the U.S. Supreme Court plans to take up this session that could affect abortion access.

One case centers around mifepristone, a pharmaceutical approved in 2000 that’s part of a two-drug regimen used in medication abortion and miscarriage treatment.

The drug is FDA-approved for up to 10 weeks gestation and accounts for more than half of pregnancy terminations in the United States, but a lawsuit filed by anti-abortion organizations will put access to mifepristone in front of the justices.

The second case is about the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, or EMTALA, a federal law that requires hospitals to determine if a patient has an emergency medical condition, then to provide stabilizing treatment or transfer the patient if the hospital cannot help them.

The 1986 law should protect doctors in states with strict anti-abortion laws if they perform an abortion as a stabilizing treatment for an emergency medical condition, according to the Biden administration.

An emergency medical condition includes diagnoses that would result in either “serious impairment of bodily functions,” or “serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part,” or “placing the health of the individual (or, with respect to a pregnant woman, the health of the woman or her unborn child) in serious jeopardy,” according to the law.

That Supreme Court case stems from Idaho’s laws regarding when and how patients can access abortion care.

Dr. Serina Floyd, an OB-GYN who works as chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C. and who is a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, said she doesn’t understand why Republican politicians are targeting EMTALA.

“The fact that you would deny someone emergency care that could save their life makes no sense,” Floyd said. “If the idea is to be able to promote life, that is counter-intuitive because now the life of that pregnant person is potentially going to be lost as well as any potential for any future possibility to have children.”

Floyd said research shows negative repercussions for patients denied access to abortion.

“Evidence shows that women denied abortion care are more likely to experience serious medical conditions during the end of pregnancy, more likely to remain in violent relationships and more likely to experience economic hardships and financial insecurity,” Floyd said.

Anyone who has the ability to become pregnant could end up needing an abortion, Floyd told senators at the briefing.

What health care providers need, Floyd said, is for “zero political interference” in how they treat their patients.

“Patients are fully equipped to be able to make complex decisions about their health and their lives,” Floyd said. “They are able to make decisions about themselves and their families in conjunction with their providers. There is absolutely no need for interference from any government.”

Influx of patients in Washington state

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who hosted the briefing, said that her home state has seen an influx of patients needing abortion access from states like Idaho that have significantly restricted when and how patients can end a pregnancy.

“The vast majority of Americans support the right to abortion,” Murray said. “They understand that it should be women who are making decisions about their pregnancies — not politicians, not judges.”

Several of the senators at the briefing expressed concerns that people living in states with protections for abortion access don’t realize decisions by the Supreme Court or GOP plans for a nationwide abortion ban would affect them.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stanebow noted how voters in her state enshrined reproductive rights and abortion access in the state’s Constitution during the 2022 elections. But she cautioned that doesn’t fully insulate patients or doctors.

“They think we’re okay. They think because we have this in the Michigan Constitution now — and the other states that have it — that we’re not affected by a national abortion ban,” Stabenow said.

After listening to the doctors’ stories about their own experiences and that of their patients, Stabenow said she was shocked by how challenging it has become for doctors and women who need abortion access.

“I keep sitting here thinking is this 1824 or 2024,” Stabenow said. “I mean, what the heck is going on here?”