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One year after Dobbs decision, families describe terror, trauma and putting ‘pain to purpose’

<i>Courtesy of Ivy Grace Project</i><br/>Matt and Jill made an award-winning documentary about their daughter.
Courtesy of Ivy Grace Project
Matt and Jill made an award-winning documentary about their daughter.

By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent

(CNN) — As Amanda Zurawski walked into a Capitol Hill hearing room in April, she was awestruck at what she was about to do: testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Presidents had testified in this room. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of her heroes, had testified in this room.

It was an unlikely turn for Zurawski, a 36-year-old high-tech analyst from Austin, Texas, who thought she would be caring for a newborn this spring, not testifying to the US Senate.

She found herself on Capitol Hill because last summer, she nearly died after she was unable to get an abortion.

“It was surreal,” she said of her Capitol Hill experience. “[But] this is my responsibility, and I take it very seriously.”

Since the Dobbs decision one year ago that overturned the federal right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade, CNN has interviewed eight women who struggled to get abortions they needed for medical reasons.

Some of the women nearly died because they couldn’t terminate their pregnancies promptly. Many of them had to travel out of state to get the care they needed.

As states continue to pass more and more restrictive abortion bans, the women continue to fight for reproductive rights, even when they’ve received hateful messages on social media, many of them saying they made up their stories.

“No one can tell me that my experience is wrong,” said Jill Hartle, a hair salon owner who had to travel out of her home state of South Carolina to terminate a pregnancy after learning that her fetus had a severe heart defect. “They can’t tell me my feelings are wrong. They can’t tell me the trauma is not valid. Nobody can take that away from me. I feel so confident in what I’m speaking to, because I’ve experienced it.”

The other women interviewed by CNN this past year include a beauty blogger and a teacher from Texas, a hair stylist and a nurse from Ohio, a social worker from Georgia and a stay-at-home mother from Florida.

CNN checked in with several of the women to see what has unfolded since they shared their stories.

Marlena Stell: ‘Karma’s a b*tch’

Marlena Stell, a beauty blogger from Texas, never expected to incur the wrath of an elected official.

In 2021, when she was 9½ weeks pregnant, an ultrasound showed that her fetus had died. Texas had passed a strict anti-abortion law just a few weeks before, and Stell spent two weeks looking for an obstetrician who was willing to remove the remains.

After Stell, 43, told her story to CNN in July 2022, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the report “fake news” and “all made up” and said the doctor made “a very poor decsion.” He made the comments on BlazeTV, a conservative media organization.

After the Dobbs decision, Paxton issued guidance on Texas’ abortion laws, stating that the laws do not prohibit a procedure to “remove a dead, unborn child whose death was caused by spontaneous abortion.”

Stell says that after Paxton’s appearance on the BlazeTV show, her social media accounts were inundated with thousands of hateful, sometimes vulgar, messages, many of them calling her a liar. She was already emotionally fragile from the loss of a child, and the onslaught of comments was devastating.

She said it was “extremely frustrating” that Paxton “never reached out to me once, even to hear my side of the story or get proof of what he was saying.”

Ten months later, she took note when the Texas House of Representatives voted to impeach Paxton after a legislative probe found that he had engaged in years of corruption, which he has denied.

“Karma’s a b*tch,” she said.

Stell says that despite the online attacks, she’s glad she spoke up last summer, just weeks after the Dobbs decision.

“I knew even back then that this was going to happen to other women, and it was going to get worse. So that’s why, for me, it was really critical to speak out when I did,” she said.

Beth Long: ‘I wish him nothing but suffering’

After Beth and Kyle Long told their story to CNN, they received a note from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican.

His note made an agonizing situation even worse, they said.

In January, when Long was 18 weeks pregnant, an ultrasound showed that most of her fetus’ organs were outside its body. A doctor involved with Long’s care told CNN that the girl they named Star wouldn’t survive.

They say their doctor urged them to terminate the pregnancy as soon as possible because the bigger the fetus was, the higher the risk of complications for Long.

Ending the pregnancy was legal in Ohio, but Long is a nurse at a state-owned hospital, and Ohio law bans her health insurance from paying for abortions except in certain cases. Endangerment to the life of the mother is one of them, and although she was at an increased risk for potentially deadly complications, Beth’s life was not in imminent danger. The couple spent an agonizing three weeks locating a hospital out of state that would give them a discounted rate for the procedure.

In January, Kyle sent an email to DeWine, who sent a handwritten note back.

“I am so sorry to hear about what you [and] your wife are going through. This must be so very difficult. Thank you for sharing your story,” read the note, which Kyle says he received in April.

“This f**ker wrote back to Kyle MONTHS later, didn’t bother to learn my name or Star’s name. We are just ‘wife and baby,’ ” Long wrote on a post on Facebook and Instagram. “I wish him nothing but suffering. May he never know peace.”

DeWine’s office confirmed that he wrote the note and said, “It is the opinion of our office that the procedure recommended for Ms. Long was both legal under Ohio law and not prohibited from state employee insurance coverage pursuant to state law. … This should likely have been considered a therapeutic abortion under Ohio law.”

Long is helping gather signatures to put an initiative for reproductive rights on the Ohio ballot. She said that recovering emotionally – from Star’s death, from the fight to get the abortion, from DeWine’s note – has been challenging.

“People suggest counseling, planting a tree in her memory, naming a star, etc. and we have done all of that and it all still hurts so much,” she wrote to CNN. “I don’t think there is anything to make it better, and seeing the division and politicization of women’s health across the nation is mentally debilitating.”

Amanda Zurawski: ‘I’m not scared’

In August 2022, when Zurawski, the high-tech analyst from Texas, was 18 weeks pregnant, her water broke. Her cervix was fully dilated, and her obstetrician said the fetus couldn’t survive without the amniotic fluid that was leaking out of her womb.

But her doctors said they couldn’t terminate the pregnancy because of Texas law. That law allows for abortions when a pregnant person’s life is in danger, but it doesn’t give specific guidelines. Eventually, Zurawski developed an infection and became septic, and her doctors would only do the abortion when she was near death.

Seven months later, in March, Zurawski and four other Texas women who say the state’s abortion bans posed significant risks to their health sued the state. The lawsuit bears her name: Zurawski v. State of Texas.

A month later, in her congressional testimony, she addressed her senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, testifying that her “horrific” experience was a result of policies they support. “I nearly died on their watch,” she said.

Since the CNN story, Zurawski has also been a guest of first lady Jill Biden at the State of the Union speech and met Vice President Kamala Harris at an event marking the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. She’s become a focal point for women who’ve suffered under abortion bans.

“I’ve heard a lot of other people’s traumatic stories, which has been difficult. But I’m happy to provide a place for people to tell their stories,” she said.

Zurawski, still grieving the loss of her daughter, Willow, said she “certainly did not expect my life to take this direction.” She said that her advocacy work can sometimes be “draining” but that her family and her employer have been “incredibly supportive.”

She knows not all women are as fortunate. She’s heard from others who had similar experiences to hers but can’t speak up because they risk alienating their families or losing their jobs. Some of those women, she said, fear for their safety if they tell their stories.

“I can speak up. I’m not scared,” she added. “I have all the right pieces in place [to advocate], and so I will.”

Jill Hartle: ‘Put pain to purpose’

When CNN wrote about Jill Hartle on December 23, she had recently lost her daughter, Ivy Grace, who had a severe congenital heart defect, at nearly 25 weeks of pregnancy.

Hartle, now 36, and her husband, Matt, were dreading the next few days: December 25 was Christmas, the next day was Jill’s birthday, and the day after that was Ivy’s due date.

That week turned out to be just as horrific as they thought it would be. There was, Matt said, “an extra sense of sadness.”

But the couple decided to “put pain to purpose,” his wife said.

This spring, as South Carolina legislators considered a six-week abortion ban, the Hartles, both conservative Christians, spent days at the Capitol, telling legislators their story.

Hartle was 18 weeks pregnant when they learned that their daughter had a severe heart defect. The couple say their doctors explained that Ivy might be stillborn and, if she were born alive, would live for a few days at most.

They wanted to terminate the pregnancy to spare their daughter pain, but their doctors said that was illegal in South Carolina. The couple then spent several wrenching weeks arranging to terminate the pregnancy out of state in September.

This spring, at the South Carolina Capitol, the Hartles told legislators their story, speaking individually to several Republican lawmakers and testifying to the state House Judiciary Committee.

The “extra stress that this state has caused me” led to “so much mental trauma [that] I will deal with it for the rest of my life,” she testified.

She said many of the Republican lawmakers they spoke to personally seemed sympathetic but then voted in favor of a bill that bans abortions in most cases.

The bill does have an exception in the case of “fatal fetal anomalies,” requiring doctors to put in writing “medical rationale for making the determination that with or without the provision of life-preserving treatment life after birth would be unsustainable.”

The Hartles had urged legislators to be more specific about what constitutes a fatal fetal anomaly. They explained to the lawmakers that for many severe birth defects, a baby can live for a few minutes or hours after birth before dying. Other times, extreme measures, such as life support, could possibly keep the baby alive for a period of time after birth. Doctors, afraid of facing prison time, and hospital attorneys might not consider those “fatal fetal anomalies” under the law and therefore might not offer an abortion.

In the end, the legislators passed a law that didn’t contain the provisions the Hartles had fought for.

“To watch them completely vote against everything that we talked about – it [was] devastating,” Hartle said. “They left us hanging out to dry.”

A day after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed the bill into law, a state judge temporarily blocked it from going into effect.

Hartle said she’ll continue advocating for reproductive rights because of support from family, friends and people she doesn’t know.

“I get messages from women that say, ‘I don’t have the strength to stand up to these people. I’m so grateful that you and your husband are,’ and that keeps me going,” she said.

A documentary the Hartles made about their daughter has won several awards at film festivals.

She said people have written her to say, “Your story literally changed my vote. Your documentary literally opened my eyes, and I changed my vote based on that.’ ”

Hartle says this was all completely unexpected: that her pregnancy with Ivy “thrusted me into the political realm that I never thought I would be in.”

But looking back at her life – she majored in journalism in college, and for years, she has spent her days in the hair salon talking to people of various backgrounds – she now sees a “timeline” that’s led her to where she is today.

“I can’t tell you that 20-year-old me was confident enough to do this. When I look at my life as a whole, now I do feel confident enough to do this,” she said.

Kailee DeSpain: A happy ending

Kailee DeSpain, the Texas teacher interviewed by CNN, has had a rocky road with a happy ending.

DeSpain, now 30, had a miscarriage in 2016 and then later had two more. In November 2021, she became pregnant again, and she and her husband, Cade, prayed for a “sticky” baby – a pregnancy that would last.

About three months into the pregnancy, the DeSpains learned that their son, whom they named Finley, had heart, lung, brain, kidney and genetic defects and would either be stillborn or die within minutes of birth. Carrying him to term put DeSpain at high risk for severe pregnancy complications, including blood clots, preeclampsia and cancer.

Doctors told them they couldn’t terminate the pregnancy because of Texas’s six-week abortion ban, in place even before the Dobbs decision. In March 2022, the DeSpains drove 10 hours to New Mexico to get the procedure.

Later that year, she became pregnant again, and in April, DeSpain gave birth to a boy, Nolan. It wasn’t an easy pregnancy; they thought she was miscarrying at seven weeks, and she was hospitalized for signs of preeclampsia and then was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Nolan was born full-term by emergency C-section, but he wasn’t breathing on his own and spent 17 days in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“I’ve been really disappointed in everything that continues to happen in Texas, and our laws just seem to get worse rather than better,” DeSpain said, adding that she hopes the Zurawski lawsuit is successful because “the state has caused so much pain to so many people with its abortion laws.”

Deciding to get pregnant again ‘weighs a little heavy on my heart’

Other women struggle with pregnancy plans.

Another pregnancy might not be an option for Zurawski, the Texas high-tech analyst who testified before Congress.

She said that after she became septic and had emergency surgery to terminate her pregnancy, she had scar tissue in her uterus and right fallopian tube. Another procedure cleared out the tissue in her uterus, but she said the fallopian tube is permanently scarred over.

Some of the other women interviewed by CNN say they’re fearful that if they get pregnant in their home states, they might once again not be able to get the care they need.

In March, Melissa Novak, a social worker and sex therapist in Georgia, found out that the fetus she was carrying had died. Her doctor prescribed only one of the pills in a two-pill combination approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to terminate an early pregnancy.

At the time, her doctor mentioned pending litigation that would ban access to mifepristone, the drug the doctor did not prescribe.

With just the other pill, Novak had, according to her medical records, an “incomplete septic abortion,” was hospitalized for days and needed emergency surgery.

Novak, 39, said she and her husband want to have a baby but worry about trying again.

“Will I be a person that miscarries a lot, and what will that miscarriage care look like?” she asked. “Will I be able to get what I need? Will my doctors feel able to give me what I need?

“It weighs a little heavy on my heart,” she added.

Stell, the Texas beauty blogger, and her husband want to give their 3-year-old daughter, Adelina, a brother or sister, but they say they won’t do it in Texas because they worry about Stell’s health. Also, she’s starting a new company, and her employees will probably be young women.

“We’re just looking for states that would be best for the women that I hire,” Stell said. “As a beauty brand, I don’t want to subject them to a state that’s going to put their health at risk. It doesn’t make me feel good as an employer.”

Hartle, the hair stylist in South Carolina, said she and her husband also aren’t sure whether they want to have a baby where they live now.

“It’s very scary,” she said. “It’s quite terrifying to be in a state that – God forbid if something else happens and something’s wrong – that we wouldn’t be able to be helped.”

For now, they’re trying to change laws while grieving the loss of their daughter.

“We’re still recovering. We’re still processing the pain that our state put us through.”

CNN’s Amanda Musa contributed to this report.

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