A Louisiana woman who was denied an abortion last month, despite carrying a skull-less, nonviable fetus, was able to get care—1,400 miles away in New York.
The woman, Nancy Davis, confirmed to The Guardian this week that on Sept. 1, she had an abortion, weeks after doctors in Louisiana told her they couldn’t offer her abortion care because of the state’s abortion ban, which offers exceptions only to save a pregnant person’s life or in some cases when the fetus won’t survive. But Davis’ fetal condition, acrania—a rare congenital disorder in which part or all of the skull is missing—isn’t among the Louisiana Department of Health’s narrow list of conditions that qualify for the exception.
“It’s hard knowing that I’m carrying it to bury it,” Davis, who’s raising a daughter and two stepchildren, said in mid-August, when she was about 13-weeks pregnant.
Davis had said her original plan was to travel to a nearby state like Florida or North Carolina, where some abortions still remain legal, but told the Guardian she ended up having to travel much farther to a Manhattan Planned Parenthood instead. Florida notably bans abortion at 15 weeks, around when Davis had the procedure in New York, and abortion access is highly restricted in North Carolina as well.
At the end of last month, Davis and her lawyer Ben Crump spoke out about her experience outside the Louisiana state capitol. At the very least, if the ban is to remain in place, Davis said the wording of the law’s exceptions should be made clearer, so pregnant people with urgent situations like hers won’t be excluded.
“The doctors told me that my baby would die shortly after birth,” Davis told reporters. “They told me that I should terminate the pregnancy. Because of the state of Louisiana’s abortion ban, they cannot perform the procedure. Basically, they said I had to carry my baby to bury my baby. They seemed confused about the law and afraid of what would happen to them if they perform a criminal abortion, according to the law.” She called on others “to imagine what it’s been like to continue this pregnancy for another six weeks after this diagnosis,” and said such a demand “is not fair to me and it should not happen to any other woman.”
Crump said Louisiana lawmakers have “inflicted unspeakable pain, emotional damage and physical risk” on Davis through the confusing ban, which has “created an environment of confusion and fear.”
Louisiana’s ban and the prolonged legal back-and-forth surrounding it since the overturning of Roe v. Wade have taken a severe toll on the state’s health care system. Just last month, all three of the state’s abortion-providing clinics were forced to permanently relocate out-of-state. And before Davis went public with her story, one Louisiana doctor testified in an affidavit challenging the ban that her patient had been forced to endure a “painful, hours-long labor to deliver a nonviable fetus, despite her wishes and best medical advice,” as a result of the ban. The doctor said it was “the first time in my 15-year career that I could not give a patient the care they needed.” Other Louisiana doctors have told Jezebel the state’s abortion ban has made them fear they “could go to prison just for handling a miscarriage as I always have.”
In other words, exceptions to abortion bans sound a lot better on paper, rarely mitigating the cruelty of forced pregnancy and birth, in practice, due to their ambiguity. “How close to death must a patient be?” an attorney for Louisiana’s abortion providers asked in an affidavit in July.
Last month, in a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge—a hospital that said it was unable to offer Davis an abortion—said the hospital will “look at each patient’s individual circumstances and how to remain in compliance with all current state laws to the best of our ability,” but that “even if a specific diagnosis falls under medically futile exceptions… the laws addressing treatment methods are much more complex and seemingly contradictory.”
Doctors’ confusion and uncertainty around pregnancy-related care they can legally provide is especially concerning at a time when the U.S. already has the highest maternal mortality rate among wealthy nations, which is disproportionately higher for Black pregnant people like Davis. In some countries that have similarly banned abortion, being forced to carry a dead fetus has resulted in pregnant people developing fatal infections because doctors are too afraid of criminal charges to intervene.
Of course, abortion bans don’t just threaten the pregnant person’s physical safety. “One has to consider the irreversible damage this is going to cause along with the long term PTSD,” reads a GoFundMe to help Davis cover the costs of her abortion and travel for the procedure. “All of this has been mentally exhausting. … Nancy is in need of therapy to ensure she is mentally stable to properly care for her other three children.”