Abortion remains legal in Texas, but confusion reigns after Supreme Court document leak

Providers, advocates and doctors spent much of the day Tuesday reassuring people that the procedure remains legal until the high court issues an official opinion overturning it.

Protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday after a leaked draft opinion obtained by Politico suggested the high court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Allison Bailey via REUTERS)

By Karen Brooks Harper, Texas Tribune

Abortion is still legal in the U.S. and — to a more limited extent — Texas, where abortion providers continued to offer services on Tuesday to those seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

But abortion-rights advocates and providers also spent the day scrambling to stop an avalanche of confusion after a leaked draft of a potential U.S. Supreme Court opinion showed that the justices are likely to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion later this year.

“Our immediate concern was that people would think it was the actual opinion,” said attorney Rosann Mariappuram, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, a Texas group that helps pregnant minors obtain abortions when they can’t get parental consent. “So the first thing we focused on was making sure that the clients we were currently working with didn’t cancel their appointments. It’s what we’ve been focused on all day.”

A day earlier, Politico reported that a majority of justices in a preliminary vote signaled that they believe that two landmark rulings granting abortion rights — Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey — should be overturned. The high court confirmed the leak on Tuesday, but also stressed that the opinion is still a draft and could change before an official ruling is issued, according to The New York Times.

Those who advocate for abortion access in Texas immediately began to battle misinformation, as partial headlines flooded social media and anti-abortion activists claimed premature victory.

“Let’s be clear: This is a draft opinion,” read a tweet circulated by Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. “It’s outrageous, it’s unprecedented, but it is not final. Abortion is your right — and it is STILL LEGAL.”

Because such a leak is so rare, the news triggered questions at clinics, on hotlines and throughout social media about the status of abortion rights in Texas.

The population that Jane’s Due Process works with — teen girls seeking to terminate a pregnancy and have no legally required parental consent to do it — are among the least likely to understand the ins and outs of federal law and the Supreme Court process, said those who work with them.

“People see the headlines, that there’s a battle about abortion, and they think it’s been banned,” said attorney Susan Hays, Democratic candidate for Texas Agriculture Commissioner and a co-founder of Jane’s Due Process. “The worst-case scenario is a young girl thinks abortion is now banned and kills herself because she can’t face being pregnant and she thinks she has no other options.”

At Lilith Fund, an Austin-based abortion fund, the fact that abortion is still legal was “one of our fundamental messages that we’re really trying to get out” on Tuesday, said Neesha Davé, deputy director.

“I’m sure that for people who are pregnant today, who are seeking abortion care today and who have woken up to this onslaught of news about the state of the legality of abortion in Texas and in states across the nation, you know, how could you not be confused about what’s happening?” Davé said.

In Texas, abortion rights have been severely limited for months after a ban on abortions beyond about six weeks of pregnancy went into effect on Sept. 1.

Many providers spoke directly to their clients through social media, websites and public statements seeking to reassure them that nothing had changed. At Whole Woman’s Health, officials said they are witnessing confusion from some clients over whether their four Texas clinics and five in other states were still open on Tuesday.

“We want to assure you that abortion is still legal and if you have an appointment or need to make one, we are still here for you,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, in an emailed statement to the media.

Tuesday’s efforts by advocates and health care providers was just more of the same education, reassurance and advocacy they’ve been doing since the Texas law — the most restrictive in the nation — was passed, said Dr. Stephanie Mischell, a provider at a medical facility in Dallas and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.

“In Texas, the abortion stigma and barrier has been part of the narrative for so long,” Mischell said. “We’ve been living essentially post-Roe since September. And I think in September there was a lot of misinformation and patients thinking all abortion is illegal and health care providers not having accurate information and being too afraid to talk to their patients about abortion. This is something our clinics have been seeing for some time now.”

What worries her and others is the growing volume of anti-abortion activists putting out the message that the court has already banned abortion with this decision.

“A lot of anti-abortion extremist groups do a lot of work to try to really sow misinformation around it or really create a culture of fear and confusion so that the patients don’t really know what’s going on,” Mischell said. “We’re anticipating that will continue to be a real barrier for patients.”

Advocates and women’s health care providers say the fear that’s created when this happens can have devastating consequences on the ability of doctors, even those who don’t provide abortions, to care for their patients.

Dr. Crystal Berry-Roberts, a Texas OB/GYN and educator at DocWhoListens.com, said she recently encountered a woman who had flown to another state to get an abortion and began bleeding when she came home.

She didn’t understand that the small amount of bleeding was not uncommon after a termination and was afraid to tell her doctors that she had recently had an abortion. That hindered their ability at first to understand why she was bleeding, said Berry-Roberts, who does not perform abortions nor work in an abortion provider’s clinic.

“She was ultimately fine but did not know what was ‘normal’ bleeding post-abortion and out of fear, shame, et cetera, hesitated being seen,” she said.

But the episode illustrated the damage that is already being done by false information and lack of information, she said.

“We need to be mindful of what is going on today that is further pushing people into the shadows and behind the misinformation and pushing them into making moves on their own,” Berry-Roberts said.

If the tension intensifies over the next few months, while people on both sides of the debate repeat half-truths and misconceptions, it could damage the trust patients have in their doctors — and the doctors’ ability to keep them healthy and safe, she said.

“I don’t want the fear and prematurity of what’s happening today to limit the conversations that my patients are willing to have with me,” Berry-Roberts said. “In doing that, it could very well limit the level of care that I’m able to provide. … Fear will put their life in danger.”

Eleanor Klibanoff contributed to this story.

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