Last week, a post on Reddit’s Austin forum told the story of a couple whose much-wanted pregnancy ended tragically. As the poster told it, his wife’s cervix began to dilate at twenty weeks, and the baby they were anticipating welcoming into the world—they had already named it “Fox”—quickly turned into an unviable pregnancy. “The only humane thing to do at that point would be to pop the sack, and let little Fox come into this world too early to survive outside,” he wrote. But that wasn’t an option. The post continued:
He still had a heart beat, which we were forced to listen to.
Because of this, and his age, any attempts to induce labor would be considered a late-term abortion.
Even though he had no chance of surviving, this was considered an abortion.
These laws made my wife feel our child struggle inside her for days. We cried ourselves to sleep every night. We spent four days in and out of the hospital waiting for nature to take it’s course.
These laws, in their effect, forced a woman to give birth to a stillborn baby.
The story quickly gathered a lot of attention on the site and spilled over into more traditional media. The Daily Beast told Daniel and Taylor Mahaffey’s story, the Texas Tribune interviewed the husband, and the New York Times reported on what happened, as well. By the end of the week, enough people inquired about the story that the rumor-control website Snopes.com verified its authenticity.
The responses on Reddit range from the sympathetic—and certainly, the Mahaffeys deserve all the sympathy in the world for what they went through—to the incredulous. Many on Reddit seemed to think that the way to make sure nothing like this happens again is letting the legislators who passed the laws that forced Taylor Mahaffey to give birth to a stillborn baby know what happened.
“It’s been my experience that lawmakers will read correspondence that you send in via their contact forms on their websites and reply to you, even if they don’t agree with you,” one user urged, while another suggested that Daniel should claim that he’s writing a letter to a local paper in order to put more pressure on lawmakers to respond. A poster wrote about how the law’s supporters misunderstood the law’s impact on health. Someone else wrote that the law “needs tweaking” to ensure that a situation like the Mahaffey’s ends, at the very least, with just the tragedy of losing a wanted pregnancy.
That sort of outpouring of outrage and support was presumably encouraging for the the couple. But if the goal is to change the abortion laws in Texas, the courses of action suggested could be futile.
Those laws—which passed as the omnibus bill HB2 in July 2013—are being challenged at the Supreme Court level, but not the part of the law that, as the couple understood it, prevented Taylor from having the abortion. The ban on abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy isn’t part of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstadt, the suit before the court. Twenty-week bans have been found unconstitutional on the circuit court level before—but not in the jurisdiction that contains Texas, and unless someone files a lawsuit that challenges the law to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and beyond, it’s not liable to change.
(St. David’s has said that the twenty-week ban was not part of the couple’s inability to obtain an abortion. The hospital, in a statement to Dallas Morning News said: “When a patient with a fetus not compatible with life presents to the hospital, the policy of St. David’s HealthCare is to begin the 24-hour waiting period after a documented physician consultation with the patient, immediate administrative approval, and a signed consent form by the patient and two OB/GYNs.” It’s still unclear why the couple would have needed to wait three days under the 2011 law referenced. The couple did not respond to the paper’s request to comment.)
Not only is it unlikely to change at the courts, but it’s unlikely to change within the legislature. In the hearings around the bill, the consequences for people whose pregnancies were unviable were brought up by multiple witnesses, including an OBGYN at the same hospital the Mahaffeys sought treatment at. During Wendy Davis’s extended filibuster of the bill in the first legislative session, she read a story that was eerily similar to that of the Mahaffeys from a Texan whose ability to terminate her pregnancy was restricted by hospital rules:
Shortly after making our decision to have my labor induced, we were informed that it wasn’t really possible. My husband worked for Seton at the time, so we had Seton insurance. As a faith-based organization, Seton would not allow us to have our labor induced while our daughter still had a heartbeat,” Davis read. “None of our daughter’s life and death went as planned or expected. I expected to have her for the rest of my life. And when that wasn’t possible I expected to be able to say goodbye to her in the way that I had chosen, but that wasn’t possible either. It is very frustrating to feel like the choices you have made for your baby’s life and death are not being respected. Hearing that your baby is going to die makes everything in your life feel like it is out of your control. Being told that you don’t really have any control over how your baby is going to die is devastating and self-defeating.
It’s a tragic story, to be certain—but the stories that similar Texans faced and then testified about in front of legislators who voted to ignore them, are no less tragic. So while our hearts may go out to families like the Mahaffeys, who seemed to believe that they were affected by the twenty-week ban, all of the incredulity on Reddit and elsewhere ignores that legislators understood this could happen. When pushing back against them, assuming that it’s a simple matter of education misses the point: Texas’s abortion laws are functioning exactly the way they were designed to function.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reflected the Mahaffeys understanding that the stillborn birth was due to laws laid out under HB2. As detailed by the Dallas Morning News, the hospital has said that the twenty-week abortion ban was not a factor in the couple’s inability to obtain an abortion.