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Doctor emotionally describes terminating pregnancy out of state during hearing over Texas abortion bans

<i>SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>Dr. Austin Dennard arrives at the Travis County Courthouse on July 20
Dr. Austin Dennard arrives at the Travis County Courthouse on July 20

By Ashley Killough and Ed Lavandera, CNN

(CNN) — On the second day of hearings addressing the emergency medical exception for abortion restrictions in Texas, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist gave emotional testimony about getting an abortion out of state last year after learning her fetus had a life-threatening condition.

Dr. Austin Dennard, an OB/GYN from Dallas and a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking clarity in the state’s abortion exceptions, testified Thursday her fetus was diagnosed with anencephaly, a condition where the brain and skull of a fetus don’t completely form.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, is asking the court to clarify what situations fall under the exception in the state’s abortion restrictions. Plaintiffs also want the court to immediately block the state’s abortion bans, as it applies to situations involving medical emergencies.

Texas in 2021 banned abortions beyond six weeks of pregnancy. When the Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights the following summer, a trigger law in the state banned all abortions other than those intended to protect the life of the mother.

The state defines a “medical emergency” as a “life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that, as certified by a physician, places the woman in danger of death or a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless an abortion is performed.”

Dennard said the diagnosis of anencephaly poses a significant threat to pregnant patients and would be incompatible with life for the fetus.

“They essentially just gasp for air until they pass away,” Dennard said, saying babies typically live for seconds, minutes, or maybe a day once born with this condition.

Dennard said continuing with pregnancy would have put herself at “significant risk,” but she did not feel confident a medical provider would give her an abortion in Texas over the diagnosis, given what she described as the confusing and vague parameters of the state’s medical emergency exception.

“It was just heart-breaking to think about how being pregnant and carrying to term would affect (my children),” she said. “But more importantly my health and staying healthy so that I can be their mother and be a wife and be a physician and take care of my patients was my number one priority.”

Dennard, who is now 34 weeks pregnant, previously received a separate abortion in Texas after learning her fetus had a rare genetic disorder known as Noonan Syndrome. But Dennard is part of the suit against Texas for a more recent pregnancy, which occurred last year, when stricter abortion laws had gone into effect.

“It’s really hard to describe in words what that feels like,” she said, growing emotional when recalling the harder path she faced in getting an abortion. “I felt like my pregnancy was not my own – that it belonged to the state, because I no longer had a choice of what I could do. I felt abandoned.”

Legal counsel for the state questioned Dennard, asking if Texas officials told her she could not have an abortion. Dennard said she never asked anyone in state government about her pregnancy.

Asked if she felt she qualified for an abortion after learning about the diagnosis at 11 weeks, Dennard said the emergency medical exception is “extremely nebulous and confusing.”

“I recognized that day in that moment that I was not critically ill,” she said. “I was not hemorrhaging, I was not septic. I was pregnant with a lethal anomaly, and I did not believe that I would be able to receive an abortion in my state at that time for the sole purpose of my lethal anomaly.”

Dr. Ali Raja, an emergency medicine specialist, also testified as an expert witness at the hearing, saying the language as written in the Texas code creates a confusing gray zone for doctors that discourages them from providing abortions.

“For patients for whom it’s unclear as to whether or not they have an emergent medical conditions, physicians are understandably going to err on the side of not treatment given those consequences,” he said, citing punitive measures that physicians could face if they provide abortions to women who don’t qualify for the exemptions under Texas law.

Dr. Ingrid Skop, director of Medical Affairs for Charlotte Lozier Institute, testified as an expert witness for the State of Texas. The Charlotte Lozier Institute is a think tank made up of anti-abortion scholars and medical experts.

Skop said the current language of Texas abortion laws is clear and offers objective guidelines on how doctors should treat pregnant patients. Skop said the confusion and fear medical providers have in providing abortion when a woman’s life is in danger or a fetus is not viable is because they don’t understand the law and are misinformed.

“It appears their doctors did not understand what the law allowed and did not offer appropriate intervention,” Skop said.

At the end of the two-day hearing on Thursday, the judge said she would weigh the arguments for several weeks before issuing a decision.

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