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Guest Column
Here’s the harrowing story of one of my patients after Florida’s 15-week abortion ban | Column
She was pregnant with twins, and at 20 weeks, her water broke, with one of the twins partially delivering.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up a 15-week abortion ban law after signing it, April 14, 2022, in Kissimmee.
Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up a 15-week abortion ban law after signing it, April 14, 2022, in Kissimmee. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Jan. 21

No two days are the same in my office. As a physician who provides abortions in Florida, every patient I see has a deeply personal journey that brings them to the seat across from me.

Six months ago, Florida implemented a ban on abortion after 15 weeks. Over the course of 180 days, we have seen patient after patient grapple with the aftermath that those in Tallahassee never cared to consider. The trauma patients go through to access the care they need is real, and that trauma could have been completely avoided.

Rachel Rapkin
Rachel Rapkin [ KEVIN KELII | Provided ]

One painful example is the story of a patient recently referred to my office after experiencing pregnancy complications — she was pregnant with twins, and at 20 weeks, her water broke, with one of the twins partially delivering.

There are significant risks to the fetus when the water breaks this early, including respiratory distress, intraventricular hemorrhage (brain bleeds) and necrotizing enterocolitis (inflammation of the gut that can lead to death). When the water breaks prior to viability, considered to be 23 to 24 weeks in most places, the pregnant person is also at risk of serious complications including hemorrhage, sepsis and death.

Because of the significant risks to both the fetus and the pregnant person, standard medical care is to offer pregnancy termination in these situations to prevent neonatal suffering and avoid life-threatening complications for the pregnant person.

Unfortunately, with the 15-week abortion ban now in place, caring for patients is much more difficult: They are left with two incomprehensible options. The first option is to travel to a state that provides the abortion care they need to protect their own health. But this is clearly only an option for those with financial means to both travel, take time off from their job and find child care for their existing children. The other option, and the one my patient was forced to choose, given Florida’s 15-week ban, was to wait for one of the following to occur: the partially delivered fetus to completely deliver; both fetus’ hearts to completely stop or for her to show signs of infection or impending sepsis before doctors are allowed to end her pregnancy.

Because of the 15-week ban, she was forced to come to the office every day, as she waited in agony for the cardiac activity to stop or for her to develop signs of infection before the hospital would agree to end her pregnancy. By the end of the week, neither fetus had a heartbeat and doctors were finally permitted to end her pregnancy and prevent her from going into deadly septic shock.

All of this was avoidable before the implementation of the 15-week ban. Before the ban, abortion care was provided to patients experiencing such an excruciating loss to help protect the parent from extreme illness, further trauma, or death. That dignity in health care is no longer allowed in Florida. That potentially lifesaving care is no longer allowed in Florida.

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We gained the constitutional right to abortion 50 years ago Sunday. On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of “Jane Roe,” holding that people in the United States have a fundamental right to choose whether to have abortions without excessive government restrictions.

One in four women of reproductive age will have an abortion in their lifetime. But abortion bans aren’t about health — they have always been about control.

Evidence shows that when people are denied an abortion, their long-term well-being will suffer, and that burden falls disproportionately on Black, Latino, Asian and other communities of color. Abortion bans continue to perpetuate cycles of inequality. Politicians claim bans are about protecting families, or “family values,” but if Florida’s legislators really cared about families, we wouldn’t be one of the bottom-ranked states on housing affordability, public schools and access to health care. The only ban we should have as it relates to abortion in our country is a ban against local governments having this much control over life-saving health care.

Stories like this patient are what providers across the state are experiencing weekly. The 15-week abortion ban in Florida is not protecting anyone, it only causes unnecessary harm to everyone who can become pregnant, and the toll is felt throughout our communities. It’s traumatizing our patients whose bodily autonomy is being stolen and forcing providers to make previously unthinkable medical decisions. The only ones who are happy with this outcome are the handful of people in Tallahassee who passed this law without understanding how abortion saves peoples’ lives.

No patient should feel shame or fear retribution for seeking the health care they need. No doctor should fear getting arrested for providing health care to save a person’s life. Any ban on abortion care is a ban on health care. Fifty years later, we will continue the fight to protect a person’s human right to access this critical, life-saving health care.

Rachel Rapkin is a Planned Parenthood physician in Tampa as well as an academic generalist in Obstetrics and Gynecology. She serves on the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Maternal Mortality Committee and has represented ACOG through testimony in front of the Florida Legislature.