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How the Dobbs decision changed life in places where abortion access was taken away

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Even as many people push to further restrict abortion access, the laws already on the books began to affect people's lives immediately once Dobbs went into effect, people like Elizabeth Weller (ph).

ELIZABETH WELLER: There was nothing wrong with her, no development issues wrong.

DETROW: When Weller found out her baby was a girl during an ultrasound, she was overjoyed. She and her husband were preparing a nursery. She wasn't thinking about terminating the pregnancy or the strict laws prohibiting abortion in her home state of Texas. But about a week after the scan, she went for a walk and realized that something wasn't right.

WELLER: This burst of water just falls out of my body. And I screamed because that's when I knew something wrong was happening.

DETROW: Elizabeth told NPR she rushed to the hospital, where she learned that her water had broken too early and that the fetus would not survive. While there was still a fetal heartbeat, it could stop at any moment.

WELLER: And she says, let's say if you get to the week of viability, which is around 24 weeks, I can't promise you that she will continue to live past that point. And because there's no amniotic fluid left, she's no longer going to be a developed baby.

DETROW: Her doctor said that prolonging the pregnancy posed a serious risk of a life-threatening infection. She was living in Texas. It was May of 2022, about a month before Roe was overturned. But Texas had a head start banning abortion. Since 2021, it had prohibited the procedure after six weeks. That's before many people even realize they're pregnant. As long as there was a fetal heartbeat, pregnancy could not be ended, except in the case of a medical emergency. And even when Elizabeth started bleeding, her case was not deemed an emergency.

WELLER: To them, my life was not in danger enough.

DETROW: Many doctors also felt trapped under the Texas law, which said almost anyone could sue a doctor not just for performing an illegal abortion, but for aiding and abetting one. Elizabeth and her husband had to wait - either for the fetal heartbeat to stop or for her to get sicker.

WELLER: And he and I kept telling each other, what is the whole point of the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm? And yet we're being pulled through this.

DETROW: And she did get sicker. She began to show signs of infection. At the same time, an ethics committee finally approved her request to be given care. Her daughter was stillborn, as expected.

WELLER: This is the one situation in my entire life where I have felt absolutely hopeless and that I was drowning, and no one was willing to save me. The state of Texas put me through that mental anguish because I couldn't get the help that I needed.

DETROW: Elizabeth Weller's story is similar to that of many others in the states where abortion access has been restricted or banned over the past year. Others have still found their way to access, they've just had to travel further than before. The number of Americans who have had to travel 200 miles or more to reach an abortion provider has jumped in the year since the court overturned Roe v. Wade and 14 states banned abortion. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin talked about the growing distances with an economics professor.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: You heard that right - an economics professor.

CAITLIN MYERS: I came to it as a labor economist interested in gender differentials in labor market outcomes.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That is the professor Caitlin Myers of Middlebury College in Vermont.

MYERS: You cannot study gender differences in labor market outcomes without studying the effects of family formation and childbearing on women's careers.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And you can't study that without getting into reproductive policy, she says. A few years ago, Myers wanted to see how the opening and closing of abortion facilities affected how far people had to go to reach one. When the nearest facility gets further away, fewer people can get abortions, usually because it's too expensive to travel. Myers mapped every abortion facility she could find, going back more than a decade, and she keeps her map up to date. She says there have been dramatic changes in the past year since the Supreme Court's decision.

MYERS: The states that have experienced huge declines in access are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma - Idaho also, I would say. A lot of driving if you're in Idaho.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, distance doesn't always limit access since now people have the option of getting abortion pills through the mail. But now that could be curtailed. There's a federal case out of Texas challenging mifepristone, one of the two drugs that's used for medication abortion. The case is expected to be argued at the Supreme Court in the fall. That decision could meaningfully limit access to medication abortion, which accounts for more than half of abortions nationally.

MYERS: I don't know what'll happen, but it could be bigger than Dobbs.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And the map of abortion access in the country might change dramatically yet again.

DETROW: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Since the ruling, Democrats in Congress have tried to codify Roe, and so far, they have not succeeded. Senator Patty Murray of Washington State spoke about it with my colleague Mary Louise Kelly this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARY LOUISE KELLY: As we were just getting set up, you looked at me and said, I can't believe it's been a year. What do you think about when you think about the Dobbs decision a year ago?

PATTY MURRAY: You know, it's incredible that it's been a year, but it feels like a really long year. I remember when the Dobbs decision came down. I was on a plane flying home to Seattle, got off, and I was just - I just felt so stunned and sad. And I kept thinking, this is going to create chaos - couldn't quite define that yet but could say that it was going to happen. And here we are a year later, and I have heard story after story. I've seen state law after state law passed. And, yeah, we are in a state of chaos for women's health.

KELLY: Well, and I gather you were hoping for chaos on a certain level. I saw an interview you gave to The Post last year where you said, I hope this moment of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade will be a galvanizing moment, that there will be a national furor. Has there been?

MURRAY: Absolutely - without a doubt. I mean, we saw it in the election. Every state that has had...

KELLY: But we saw in the election, Republicans took the House.

MURRAY: Right. But every state that had abortion on the ballot, abortion rights for women, it passed. Women came out to vote to make sure that they could protect their rights. Have we seen dozens of states pass really horrific laws that have inhibited women? Yes.

KELLY: Yeah. But I guess - I mean, just to push you on this, the Supreme Court struck down Roe. Republicans won the House. As you just nodded to, state after state has passed laws restricting abortions, mostly, not the other way. There's still all kinds of debate over the abortion pill and mifepristone and where that will go, but increasing efforts to walk back access to that. And I'm sitting with you on Capitol Hill, and there aren't protests outside every day. I get that there can't be protests every day.

MURRAY: Look, I can tell you the difference...

KELLY: But when you say it's caused a furor...

MURRAY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...I'm not sure I see it.

MURRAY: I can tell you the difference pre-Dobbs decision, post-Dobbs. Pre-Dobbs decision, women in this country knew that they didn't have to tell anybody that they were pregnant or that they were ending their pregnancy or that they had a miscarriage or had any complications from it. It was a private decision. They had access to the care they needed. That changed dramatically and continues to change as state legislators take these horrific steps to preclude women from getting the access that they need. And now women are realizing, and men, that they can't be quiet about this. They actually need to tell people this is happening to them. And the number of people who have a friend, a family member, someone they work with, someone they know in college that has been impacted by this - it is growing, and the outrage is growing.

KELLY: So let's talk about what you would like to see Congress do. Last May, right after the draft opinion leaked, the Senate held a vote attempting to enshrine abortion rights. It failed. I guess I'm wondering, we're not able to get a vote through when Democrats controlled the Senate and the House and the White House, so...

MURRAY: Today.

KELLY: ...What gives you hope?

MURRAY: Today. And I think what gives me hope is that this has now become an issue that people really understand. And they understand that they have to stand up and fight for it, that we need to change the laws. We need to protect women.

KELLY: Do you hear any of that from your colleagues across the aisle, though, like Republicans in the House?

MURRAY: Well, what I have - well, I'm not going to speak for the House - a radical view - but what I can tell you is a number of Republicans have gone from a year ago saying we're going to pass a national ban to just being quiet about it in most cases. Now, there are absolutely members of the Republican Party who are standing up and continuing to try and make this an issue. But I will tell you, as we see more and more of the fallout, the impact to women in particular, treating women as if they are second-class citizens in this country - you cannot determine your own health care. You can't even find your own health care. You can't even travel to another state to get your health care. The outrage that is being felt by women and their friends and their families is growing.

KELLY: Listening to you, you don't sound tired. I think a lot of people might sound tired after 30 years - it's been 30 years since you entered the Senate, and women arguably have seen their rights narrow, not expand...

MURRAY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...In that time.

MURRAY: Oh, I - this is a battle of a lifetime. I was in college when Roe was decided. I had friends, one who was what we today would call - be called date-raped. And she had no health care access, ended up having an abortion by a doctor on the street and severely injured because you didn't have the right kind of care. I do not want to go back to those days. I don't want to go back to the days where women are put into institutions because they got pregnant. This is life. This is what happens. And in this country, we have protected that ability for the last 30 years. And I will keep fighting every day till we get that back.

DETROW: That was Senator Patty Murray of Washington state speaking to my colleague, Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.