Last week, an Ohio woman wrote a letter to the editor to her local paper about her daughter being denied an emergency abortion amid a miscarriage, putting her life at risk. The letter drew national attention after being featured in Jessica Valenti’s Abortion, Every Day newsletter, which shared new, gutting developments in the woman’s story on Tuesday.
Christina Zielke told her story to NPR on Tuesday. The Washington, D.C., resident learned she was pregnant in July, and weeks later learned the fetus had no heartbeat and that her pregnancy hormone levels were dropping. It was clear the pregnancy wasn’t viable, and her options, her doctor told her, were to take medication to end the pregnancy more quickly, have a dilation and curettage (D&C) abortion procedure to remove the pregnancy tissue, or wait to naturally lose the pregnancy. According to Zielke, her doctor recommended the last option. Weeks later, her natural bleeding still hadn’t begun, but Zielke felt reassured after reading online that it can take some pregnant people longer than others to miscarry. Then, over Labor Day weekend in September, Zielke and her husband traveled to Ohio for a wedding.
Zielke’s bleeding began on the drive to the wedding. She thought she’d miscarried and that that was the last of it, but the next night, the bleeding returned and worsened. Zielke told NPR she “was passing blood clots the size of golf balls.” She recalled filling the bathtub of her parents’ Ohio house with blood in the middle of the night and then waking up in the emergency room of TriPoint Medical Center.
As different medical staff visited and ran tests on Zielke, she continued to bleed nonstop, filling entire diapers with blood, but was told her blood tests didn’t show significant blood loss. She said she heard a nurse at one point say a D&C is sometimes needed to stop heavy bleeding, but no one offered her this procedure. Two-and-a-half hours later, she was discharged from the emergency room; Zielke and her husband, Greg Holeyman, objected to this, but Zielke says they were told that doctors “needed to prove there was no fetal development”—or that the fetus really was dead—for them to offer a D&C, and told her to “come back in two days for a repeat hormone test to confirm I was miscarrying.”
Ohio’s abortion ban that prohibits abortion after six weeks was in effect in September, while Zielke was in the state; as of October, the ban has been blocked in court. The only exception is for cases in which there’s an immediate threat to the pregnant person’s life, but as experts have long pointed out, the ambiguity around this and the high risk doctors face of being criminalized for providing abortions can render exceptions like this, if not useless, then dangerously exclusionary.
Without any other choice, Zielke and Holeyman went back to Zielke’s parents’ house, and once she entered, she recalls there was blood already “running down into my shoes.” Lying in her parents’ bathtub again, she continued to bleed heavily, and a nurse on an emergency phone line told them to return to the ER. As Zielke was taking photos of the blood filling the bathtub—in her words, “just trying to prove what was happening, because I felt like I wasn’t believed”—she said she felt “the world slip away” and fainted. Holeyman told NPR he believes his wife almost died. When an ambulance arrived, she had to be carried out of the tub and into the vehicle.
Zielke was taken to the same ER she’d just been discharged from hours ago and was finally given a life-saving D&C. After the procedure, she and her husband declined the hospital’s offer for her to stay overnight. “It wasn’t a place I felt safe,” she said.
In a statement to NPR, University Hospitals, which runs TriPoint Medical Center, declined to confirm any details about what happened due to patient privacy policies. But a spokesperson told the outlet, “University Hospitals complies with Ohio laws. Our position is always that health care decisions are best made between the patient and her physician.”
Mike Gonidakis, an anti-abortion activist who inexplicably sits on the state’s medical board, told NPR the state’s abortion law couldn’t be blamed for Zielke’s experience. But regardless of the abortion ban’s stated exception for risks to the pregnant person’s life, the threat of prison-time inevitably affects the care that doctors provide. When emergency care is denied or delayed as a result of this, the outcomes can be fatal: In Poland, which enacted a near-total abortion ban in 2021 that also provides an exception for threats to the life of the pregnant person, at least two women have died after contracting sepsis because doctors didn’t believe they could legally perform abortions to remove dead, nonviable fetuses; one woman died after being forced to carry a dead fetus for a week.
This easily could have happened to Zielke. We’ve already seen cases in Texas and Louisiana in which abortion laws in these states forced people to carry nonviable or dead fetuses for prolonged amounts of time, placing them, too, at risk of fatal sepsis infections. Hypotheticals about whether a dead fetus is truly dead, or whether providing emergency care can land a doctor in prison, are being prioritized over pregnant people’s real lives, health, and safety.
One of the most devastating aspects of Zielke’s story that’s going to stay with me is her own words—about feeling like she “wasn’t believed” by the ER and not feeling safe at the hospital. Medical gaslighting and dismissal of women and pregnant people’s experiences has always been rampant, but our post-Roe reality is rapidly, exponentially making things worse.
Correction, 11/18/22: This story has been corrected to reflect that Ohio’s six-week abortion ban is not currently in effect but was at the time Zielke was in the state.