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Why a growing number of women are suing Texas over the state's abortion laws

Jessica Bernardo, who has joined the Texas abortion lawsuit, sits on the stairs at her home.
Jessica Bernardo, who has joined the Texas abortion lawsuit, at her home in the Dallas area on May 18. (LM Otero/AP)

Eight more women have joined a lawsuit filed by five women against the state of Texas, where, they say, abortion laws prevented them from terminating their pregnancies despite life-threatening health concerns.

One of the women signing on to the lawsuit is an ob-gyn who was forced to travel to Colorado to abort a pregnancy that had resulted in the diagnosis of a fatal fetal anomaly. Another woman learned in the 22nd week of pregnancy that her baby boy had anencephaly and wouldn’t survive, but was told she either had to wait for the baby’s heart to stop beating or carry the pregnancy to term.

Dr. Austin Dennard stands as she poses for a photo at her home.
Dr. Austin Dennard, who had to travel out of state to end a pregnancy, at her home in Dallas on May 18. (LM Otero/AP)

Filed in March by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Zurawski v. State of Texas is attracting a growing number of plaintiffs who say they have been adversely impacted by the state’s strict abortion regulations that prohibit the procedure unless the life of the mother is at risk.

“If it wasn’t from our initial filing, it is so clear now that this is an ongoing, pervasive problem in the state of Texas and around the country,” Molly Duane, the lead attorney on the case at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said during a Monday press call.

Here’s everything you need to know about how we got here and what’s next.

What are the abortion laws in Texas?

Abortion is now banned in Texas under its so-called trigger law, which does not make exceptions for rape, incest or severe fetal abnormality. Exceptions are allowed for medical emergencies concerning the pregnant woman, which are defined as “risk of death or a substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

Doctors face steep penalties if they perform an abortion in any case outside of those exceptions, including prison sentences of up to 99 years, $100,000 fines and loss of their medical licenses.

And even before the fall of Roe v. Wade, Texas passed a law, S.B. 8, that bans most abortions after cardiac activity is detected, and allows civilians to enforce it by suing anyone who aided or abetted in an abortion.

What does the lawsuit say?

The case was originally filed on behalf of five women and two board-certified ob-gyns. The women claim that they experienced pain and suffering because they were denied abortion care in Texas despite facing medical emergencies while pregnant.

“I cannot adequately put into words the trauma and despair that comes with waiting to either lose your own life, your child’s — or both,” Amanda Zurawski, the lead plaintiff in the case, testified before a congressional panel in late April.

Amanda Zurawski speaks into a microphone at a Senate hearing.
Amanda Zurawski testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on April 26. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The physicians suing the state claim that they struggle to meet their ethical obligations and patient needs under the state’s abortion bans.

“Widespread fear and confusion regarding the scope of Texas’s abortion bans has chilled the provision of necessary obstetric care, including abortion care,” Dr. Damla Karsan says in the lawsuit.

The additional eight plaintiffs who recently joined the lawsuit include women of color, those with disabilities and survivors of partner violence, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

What are the plaintiffs asking for?

The plaintiffs want the court to clarify the parameters of the “medical emergency” exception under the state’s abortion bans by creating a binding interpretation so that physicians can “exercise their good-faith judgment regarding what patients qualify under medical exceptions, rather than allowing politicians and state officials to make those decisions,” according to a Center for Reproductive Rights press release.

Why isn’t the lawsuit seeking to overturn the Texas abortion ban?

“We have to be realistic,” Duane said during Monday’s press call. “Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, Texas had one of the most restrictive abortion schemes in the country. We are cognizant any lawsuit seeking to expand abortion access in the state of Texas will be an uphill battle.”

What has Texas’s response been?

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with the state medical board and its director. After the lawsuit was filed in March, a spokesman for Paxton said in an email to the Associated Press that he is “committed to doing everything in his power to protect mothers, families, and unborn children, and he will continue to defend and enforce the laws duly enacted by the Texas Legislature.”

“Really, the only response that I have seen from anti-abortion folks since the filing of our lawsuit is to say that these are isolated incidents, or situations where one doctor doesn’t understand the law,” Duane said during the press call.

What’s next?

“So we have obviously been in conversation with the state about when we could have a hearing and we don’t have an exact date yet, but the plan is to have a hearing this summer, potentially in July,” Duane said during Monday’s press call. “I’m hoping to work out the details of all of that with the state in the coming week, so that we can start preparing, because what the stories that you’ve heard today make clear is that these things are happening every single day in Texas.”