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Texas judge could take ‘weeks’ to make decision on exceptions to state abortion laws

The lawsuit does not seek to overturn the laws. Instead, plaintiffs are asking the court to clarify when physicians can make exceptions to the law.

TEXAS, USA — Before a packed courtroom in Austin this week, a group of women relived their pregnancy losses.

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit in March on behalf of 15 Texas women who said the law put their lives in danger.

During the two-day hearing, attorneys called two out-of-state physicians as witnesses, who both said they found the language about exceptions in Texas’ abortion law to be confusing.

“There’s a grey zone. There’s a lack of clarity,” said Dr. Ali Shahbaz Raja, a physician from Boston. “[Doctors] are going to err on the side of caution of not treatment.”

One doctor argued against other physicians’ claims that the law is unclear, saying doctors who do not provide abortions when a patient has severe pregnancy complications are misunderstanding the law.

Dr. Ingrid Skop, a Texas OB-GYN, argued that “the law is clear." She suggested physicians who are fearful of making a wrong decision “haven’t read the law carefully.”

“They should have known they could offer intervention in that situation,” Dr. Skop said. “They did not need to wait until women were on the verge of dying and going to the ICU before they intervened.”

During testimony, the women shared stories of how they were unable to get a medical abortion during their pregnancies, despite the pregnancy putting their lives at risk. Some women were, at times, too emotional to speak. One of them became physically ill while on the witness stand as she recounted her experience of having to carry her baby to term, despite doctors telling her halfway through her pregnancy that her daughter had no chance of survival.

Texas is one of 13 states where abortion bans were automatically instated when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. Texas’ trigger law prohibits all abortions except under limited circumstances, such as a “life-threatening condition to the mother caused by the pregnancy.”

Physicians who perform an abortion outside of these circumstances could be subject to a sentence of up to life in prison and at least a $100,000 fine.

Authors of the legislation said the state’s trigger law works in concert with Texas’ 2021 law, known as Senate Bill 8 — which allows private citizens to sue providers or anyone who aids and abets abortions that occur after six weeks.

The lawsuit does not seek to overturn the laws. Instead, plaintiffs are asking the court to clarify when physicians can make exceptions to the law.

SMU Professor Seema Mohapatra studies abortion law.  She says the consequences of violating this law are severe.

In this case, Mohapatra said it may leave some doctors hesitant to provide a standard of care that is otherwise normal and expected when there’s a pregnancy complication. 

“It’s this very, you know, odd and unhealthy kind of relationship for a physician to have with their patient that, no, you’re not sick enough right now and I could risk, you know, having a felony conviction. I could risk my license," Mohapatra explained from the viewpoint of a physician.

The judge overseeing the case says it will take weeks before a decision is made. Mohapatra said, regardless of the decision, anyone pregnant in the state of Texas, as well as physicians, "will be potentially impacted by this."

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