Flying to Another State for an Abortion

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear an abortion case for the first time in years, Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and it’s shaping up to be hugely consequential. Garret Epps has an overview of the case and what’s at stake. If the Texas law in question is upheld, 34 of the 40 clinics providing abortions in the state will likely close because they won’t be able to meet two new major regulations.

About a month ago, in the wave of email from readers responding to our callout for personal stories of confronting abortion, we heard from a woman living in Texas who was already struggling with abortion regulations in that state. She is also one of the few readers in this series willing to use her real name:

My name is Dr. Valerie Peterson.  I live in Austin, Texas, and I’m a single mom of two kids. I had my first daughter when I was 17, and then my second child at 19. I worked full-time while attending school full time, all the way through earning a doctorate.

I had several gynecological complications after my second child and was told that I couldn’t get pregnant again. I was shocked when my doctor told me I was pregnant in July of 2015. Even though this was unexpected, it was a wanted pregnancy, and I started prenatal care.

Because of high blood pressure, I was considered a high-risk pregnancy and had to have ultrasound scans every two weeks. At my 12-week scan, I was told that there was a possible abnormality in my son’s brain, but more testing was needed. For the next several weeks, I went back and forth to my doctors for additional tests. At my 16-week appointment, the sonogram my son’s brain hadn’t developed into two halves, and there was also an open neural tube. My doctor confirmed the diagnosis: alobar holoprosencephaly, or HPE.

HPE is a condition that is 100 percent incompatible with life. I had two options.

I could try to carry the pregnancy to term and eventually miscarry or give birth to a stillborn baby, or I could terminate my pregnancy. I was devastated by the diagnosis and these options, but knew that I needed to end the pregnancy. I knew that mentally and emotionally it would have been extremely difficult to continue day to day knowing I was carrying a child that wouldn’t survive. I was also informed that the procedure wasn’t covered by insurance, because it was considered “elective” … this made the situation even worse.

My doctor referred me to an abortion provider in Austin. However, I was told that there was a three-week wait for an appointment. As you can imagine, I was emotionally distraught and didn’t know how I would continue to carry the pregnancy that long.

My doctor was eventually able to find an earlier appointment through his personal connections at Planned Parenthood. But I was again devastated to learn that due to the laws in Texas, my procedure would take four days. The first day I would have to go through mandatory counseling. This included having an ultrasound and learning about additional options besides abortion. After the counseling, there is a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. On day three, they would be able to begin the procedure, but because of how far along I was, they would have to dilate my cervix on day three and have me return on day four to have the procedure completed.

The process seemed extremely cruel and emotionally grueling on top of everything else I was dealing with at the time, and I just couldn’t do it.

I confided in a friend whose sister works in health care in Orlando, and she put me in touch with an abortion provider there. I called the doctor, and she told me that she could see me as soon as I could get to Florida. I called on a Thursday, flew in the next day, and my procedure was over by Saturday evening. They were able to take care of everything in one day.

I am thankful that I had the resources to leave the state. However, it hurts my heart to hear stories of women that aren’t so lucky.