Jaci Statton, a 25-year-old mother of three based in Central Oklahoma, was expecting her fourth child when she began feeling dizzy, weak, and especially nauseous toward the end of February. By mid-March, she experienced an episode of heavy bleeding, and she and her husband rushed to an emergency room, where they learned she had a nonviable, molar pregnancy—which occurs when an embryo has too many chromosomes and can result in the developing tissue becoming cancerous. In most cases, the condition is benign—but in 15% of cases, including Statton’s, molar pregnancies can be cancerous.
Speaking to NPR for a story published on Tuesday, Statton recalled traveling to numerous hospitals to seek an emergency dilation and curettage (or D&C) abortion procedure—the treatment for her life-threatening condition. Her emergency room doctor told her she was at risk of hemorrhage and even death, but that the hospital couldn’t provide treatment. Over the course of a week, she was transferred to three different hospitals. The last hospital instructed Statton to wait in the parking lot for her condition to worsen before they could legally treat her, she claimed. “They said, ‘The best we can tell you to do is sit in the parking lot, and if anything else happens, we will be ready to help you. But we cannot touch you unless you are crashing in front of us or your blood pressure goes so high that you are fixing to have a heart attack,’” Statton told NPR.
Oklahoma currently has three active abortion bans, which have conflicting exceptions and guidelines around medical emergencies in which abortion is appropriate, reproductive rights advocacy groups explained in a new study published Tuesday. Under these laws, abortion providers are threatened with prison time. As a result, many hospitals in the state have expressed confusion about whether and under what circumstances they can offer emergency abortion care: The study surveyed 34 hospitals in the state on their policies surrounding pregnancy complications and emergency abortion care. Per its findings, four hospitals disclosed that doctors must seek approval to provide emergency abortions; 14 hospitals were unable to provide clear answers about whether they even had an approval process for emergency abortions; and three of the hospitals said they wouldn’t provide abortion under any circumstances.
“These devastating findings from Oklahoma are consistent with accounts we are hearing from patients and health care professionals in other abortion ban states,” Risa Kaufman, director of U.S. human rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Jezebel in a statement. “These bans undermine the ability and freedom of patients and their providers to make safe, evidence-based health care decisions.”
At the end of last month—two weeks after Statton was denied care by three different Oklahoma hospitals—the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that abortion care is legal when a patient’s life is in danger.
After ultimately being unable to get an emergency D&C procedure in Oklahoma, Statton said she and her husband drove three hours out-of-state to receive care in Kansas. She told NPR she’s now facing surgery to remove additional cancerous tissue.
Dr. Loren Colson, a reproductive health care provider based in Idaho, says that molar pregnancies and similar high-risk pregnancy complications carry even greater risk with delays when hospitals weigh their legal risks. “Procedurally, it becomes a lot more complicated than it had to be, and a lot more difficult to treat,” Colson said. In states with criminal abortion bans, like Idaho, Colson says at least two hospitals have shuttered the obstetrics and labor and delivery departments as a result of confusion over criminal risk incurred by the state’s abortion ban. “We’re seeing a mass exodus of physicians in the state as a result of this ban.” That means fewer health care providers are available to help pregnant people.
As hospitals weigh their legal risks and pregnant people shoulder the consequences, advocates have pointed out that regardless of bans, doctors remain obligated to provide life-saving care. And many hospitals have robust legal departments and resources that should enable them to take these risks. “I don’t want to speak for all physicians,” Colson said, “but I think when push comes to shove, hopefully, if someone had someone that was going to die without immediate intervention, that they would intervene.” If a patient faced less immediate pregnancy complications, Colson says doctors are more likely to refer their patients to health care in a state with less legal risk.
Fear of abortion bans has ultimately resulted in the dehumanization of pregnant patients, the Center for Reproductive Rights’ study of Oklahoma hospitals found. Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights and one of the study’s authors, told NPR that one hospital spokesperson said in cases of pregnancy-related emergencies, the hospital “would try to use the woman’s body as an incubator to just try to keep the pregnancy going as long as possible.”
Statton told the Oklahoman she “felt so alone,” throughout her struggle to find care, and that she’s sharing her story hoping to change Oklahoma’s abortion laws and shed light on their lived impacts on pregnant people. “I wasn’t trying to get rid of my baby. I went there because my baby was not going to make it and neither was I,” she said. “If only these people knew.”