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As LDH considers adding to abortion exceptions list, opponents and supporters of ban voice concerns

Abortion rights supporters outnumbered opponents at a Louisiana Department of Health hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 25, over whether to expand the list of fetal conditions that legally allow an abortion.
Rosemary Westwood
Abortion rights supporters outnumbered opponents at a Louisiana Department of Health hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 25, over whether to expand the list of fetal conditions that legally allow an abortion.

Several personal stories of women who have had miscarriages, fetal anomalies and abortions dominated a hearing Tuesday on whether the Louisiana Department of Health should expand the medical futility exception to Louisiana's near-total abortion ban.

Most were opponents of the current ban and urged the health department to dramatically broaden the list of conditions that allow legal abortions.

“I am here to beg for an expansion of this LDH list,” said Dr. Nina Breakstone, a New Orleans-area emergency physician, “as well as the addition of legal protections for physicians who are trying to stay within the boundaries of this law and this new and frankly terrifying legal landscape.”

Louisiana’s ban criminalizes nearly all abortions, with penalties that include steep fines and up to 15 years in prison for anyone who performs an abortion. But the law carves out narrow exceptions for ectopic pregnancies, a risk of death to the mother, or when the fetus has been diagnosed with a condition deemed “medically futile,” meaning the fetus isn’t viable outside the womb.

Last month, the health departments proposed adding acrania to the current list of 25 conditions that allow legal access to abortions, in the wake of controversy after Woman’s Hospital denied an abortion to Nancy Davis this summer when her fetus was diagnosed with acrania, meaning it had no brain or skull.

The health department called the meeting after Lift Louisiana, a reproductive rights organization, launched a campaign to gather the 25 signatures required to trigger a formal hearing on the proposal.

The meeting began with three opponents of abortion who argued against any legal abortions when fetuses are diagnosed with severe anomolies. One of the opponents was Susan Raborn, a 62-year-old woman who said she had two abortions when she was 19 and 20.

“I am forgiven by a great and merciful God,” she said. “But though forgiven, you don’t ever forget what you did.”

Raborn said people carrying fetuses that would not survive should be forced to carry those pregnancies to term.

Dr. Kim Hardey, an OB-GYN, also spoke against the exception for medically futile pregnancies, arguing that women are better off when they carry and birth a terminally ill baby, even if they’re only able to hold them for a few minutes.

“Women who we consider the greatest mothers are the ones who are willing to sacrifice the most,” Hardey said, “and this is such a tremendous sacrifice for a woman to choose to continue a pregnancy in a baby she’ll never see grow up to maturity.”

Speakers in support of expanding abortion access included three medical students, two physicians, a woman’s rights activist and a candidate for Congress.

Breakstone, the ER physician, said her mother chose an abortion in the second trimester in the late 1980s, after discovering the baby had serious anomolies.

“She felt that she and my father would not be able to care for me and my brother if they had a profoundly disabled child,” Breakstone said. “My mom is not happy about her abortion. It still makes her sad, but she does not regret it. She did it for me and my brother.”

Breakstone said the list of medically futile conditions was hastily put together in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and leaves out a number of conditions “that would profoundly affect the life of the child and the family of that child.”

“And we are leaving the family of that child out of this discussion entirely,” she said.

Later, Katilin Joshua — the only speaker who identified themselves as Black — said she recently miscarried at 12 weeks of pregnancy. Joshua went to a series of hospitals asking for care, but she said she was told by nurses and staff to come back if she lost enough blood.

“They could neither quantify nor qualify what that even meant,” Joshua said. “What level blood loss would constitute an emergency when I was already in pain?”

One physician said she was sending Joshua home “with prayers.”

“I would love to grow my family here,” Joshua said, “but it is too dangerous.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Jane Martin, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in the greater New Orleans area, called the list “arbitrary, narrow, and limiting.” It should be expanded far beyond acrania, she said, noting there were hundreds of conditions that could be added to it.

Ideally, Martin said the definition of “medically futile” could be simplified to a single line.

“A pregnancy that is considered medically futile as deemed or as determined by the patient and the provider alone — that should be the only list that exists in order for us to continue to provide the best care for our patients in the state of Louisiana,” Martin said.

The proposal to add acrania to the list of medically futile pregnancies that allow for an abortion could take weeks or months to become final, including potential input from the legislature.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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