Deborah Dorbert traces her fingertip along four strips of grainy black and white images placed on a wooden kitchen table inside her home in Lakeland, Florida.
It’s a small city, a short drive from Disneyworld. This was, initially, her own fairytale. The pictures are scans showing a baby growing inside her, a cherished second child with husband Lee, and a younger sibling for their four-year-old son Kaiden.
The first two scans show an apparently healthy foetus but 23 weeks into Deborah’s pregnancy, everything changed. A routine ultrasound, which she had brought Kaiden along to, revealed abnormalities.
Deborah, Lee and their family were about to experience just how cruel America’s new abortion laws can be.
“Kaiden could see the picture of the baby on the screen and was calling out all the parts with her. The technician was doing her normal thing and then she stopped,” Deborah says. “She said that she could perhaps see part of a kidney on one side and definitely no kidney on the other. I looked at her and I asked ‘Is my baby going to live?’ She said this was a fatal foetal abnormality. I broke down crying.”
A doctor diagnosed Deborah’s unborn baby with Potter Syndrome, a rare condition that affects how a foetus develops in the uterus. In this case, the specialist was clear that it was “incompatible with life”.
The heartbroken couple made the agonising decision to opt for an abortion.
“It was best for Deborah to be able to terminate the pregnancy as soon as possible to start healing,” Lee says. “But it was made clear by the doctor that the current political situation was going to impede our ability to do that.”
In Florida, abortion is now banned after 15 weeks. There are exceptions for fatal foetal abnormalities. But doctors in Florida and other states with similar laws are hesitant to terminate such pregnancies in case someone questions whether the abnormality was truly fatal. The penalties for violating the law are extremely harsh and can include fines, legal fees or even prison time.
Deborah’s doctors were unwilling to take the risk and she was, effectively, forced to continue her pregnancy to term. For more than three months, Deborah carried a baby she knew wouldn’t survive. For the first time in her life, she suffered with anxiety and depression. As doctors expected, when Baby Milo was born he lived for just 93 minutes.
“The baby usually immediately starts crying. But it was just silence,” Lee says. “He was opening his mouth periodically, just trying to breathe.”
Complex patchwork of abortion laws
Across this vast country, many more families are enduring a similar heartbreak. A year has passed since the earthquake legal ruling that changed the lives of millions of American women. The Supreme Court, comprised of the nine highest judges in the land, overturned the landmark 1973 ruling – known as Roe versus Wade – which legalised abortion nationwide up to the point of foetal viability, about 24 weeks, when a baby is widely accepted to be able to survive outside the womb.
I was there as the ruling was made public, removing a constitutional right in this way for the first time and handing the power to decide on reproductive rights to each of the individual 50 states. Hundreds of people on both sides of the argument, anti-abortion and pro-choice activists, crowded the gleaming, white-pillared Supreme Court building. Some cheered and let off party poppers while others cried and told their own story of abortion.
“The Republicans have been working towards this day for decades,” seethed Elizabeth Warren, one of the Democratic party’s leading politicians and a renowned defender of women’s rights. “They have been out there plotting, carefully cultivating these Supreme Court Justices so they could have a majority on the bench that would accomplish something that the majority of Americans do not want.”
Warren watched as the composition of the Supreme Court became steadily more right-wing, including the appointment of two conservative judges by Donald Trump during his presidency.
There is now a complex patchwork of abortion laws across the country. In 20 states, there are restrictions and in 14 states, almost all abortions are banned. An additional eight states have had bans blocked. Meanwhile, some states – such as New York and California – have styled themselves as so-called “safe havens” where women can travel to receive abortion healthcare.
The vast majority of Americans oppose total bans or severe restrictions on abortions. It is likely to be an issue in voters’ minds for the 2024 presidential election. President Biden, a devout catholic, has wrestled with his feelings on abortion in the past but now says he is firmly pro-choice, although he has been criticised for not being outspoken enough. Donald Trump, seeking to be the Republican candidate in 2024, is thought to be more centrist on abortion than others in his party and sees a national abortion ban as a potential vote loser.
In contrast, his closest expected challenger for the Republican nomination, current Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has become the face of his state’s six-week abortion ban legislation.
‘It was life or death’
Deborah Dorbert considered travelling out of state to have an abortion but could not afford the travel and the time off work. The couple didn’t want to disrupt the routine of their other son Kaiden. The physical and emotional pain was like nothing she’d experienced before.
“When the baby was kicking me I wanted to feel joy,” she says, her voice faltering. “But at the same time I fought back because I knew what was about to happen, that I was going to lose him. Some days I would get so angry and upset and be in so much pain that I couldn’t get out of bed. I just wanted to lay in bed and I just wanted to be done with the pregnancy.”
Stories like Deborah’s are becoming increasingly common across the most restrictive states.
Mayron Hollis works long, hard days at an insulation factory. I met her at a diner on the outskirts of Clarksville, Tennessee, where she is picking up a cheeseburger and French fries to take home to her family.
She and her husband Chris have little financial security. On her porch is a fridge surrounded by lots of children’s toys. Her 18-month-old daughter, Zooey, sits on a small plastic chair beside her.
Zooey was just five months old when Mayron became pregnant again. It was a surprise but a welcome one. Soon after, though, they were told the embryo had implanted in the caesarean scar she had from Zooey. At any point, a doctor warned, the pregnancy could rupture and blow open her uterus.
“He said I did not have a choice,” Mayron says. “He said it could kill me. It was life or death.”
Mayron and Chris wrestled with the doctor’s recommendation to have an abortion but by the time they resolved to follow his advice, it was too late.
A trigger law had come into place in Tennessee in August 2022 banning all abortions. There was an exception where the mother’s life was in danger but Mayron’s doctors wouldn’t take the risk of performing the procedure.
She was – effectively – forced to continue with a pregnancy which nearly killed her.
“I panicked,” she says. “I had to put it to the back of my mind. I told myself: ‘You’re not pregnant. Just don’t think about it right now. We’ll deal with it when it gets here. It wasn’t my choice to live or die. They took away the choice of my family, my sanity.”
When she was 26 weeks pregnant, Mayron started bleeding internally.
“I set up to go to the bathroom and I was just gushing blood. I had a white rug in front of my door, and there was just blood everywhere.” Mayron had an emergency hysterectomy to save her life, which means she won’t be able to carry a child in the future.
‘I’m blessed because I’m here and she’s here’
Baby Elayna was born premature and spent the first week of her life in intensive care and still has a long road ahead of her. On one occasion, Elayna stopped breathing and Mayron had to give her CPR until the emergency services arrived. She is the size of a newborn but growing stronger.
“I’m blessed because I’m here and she’s here,” says Mayron. “I felt alone and scared during my pregnancy. I never want to go through that again.”
The hospital which treated Mayron will not comment on her case. But one of her doctors agrees to speak to me in a personal capacity. Dr Sarah Osmundson is a maternal foetal medicine specialist, who feels compelled to speak out.
“We have a law in Tennessee that has made it impossible for me to fulfil my duties as a physician and honour patients’ choices when they’re faced with incredibly difficult decisions,” she says.
Anti-abortion campaigners may point to Mayron’s case and say it’s a victory.
I ask Dr Osmundson if she feels that way. “We are so happy that she has a live baby,” she says. “But even now, her baby is not out of the woods for a long time. It’s a small victory in that she didn’t die. But I think that’s a very low bar to set.”
Even some of those who initially supported the law are now backing away from it.
Tennessee Senator Richard Briggs sponsored the bill when it landed on his desk in 2019, but he treated it as a hypothetical, assuming Roe versus Wade would never be overturned.
I ask him if he was basically playing a dangerous game with the lives of women in Tennessee? “That’s a legitimate question,” he says. “I don’t regret signing it because we don’t need to terminate normal pregnancies. I know there’s sometimes unusual circumstances so maybe we should have had more discussion.”
Deborah and Mayron’s stories highlight the potentially catastrophic consequences of restricting access to abortion healthcare. But there is also the wider question about a woman’s right to choose. A recent poll suggests that since Roe versus Wade was overturned, support for early stage abortions (up to the first 12 weeks) are at a record high, having increased from 67% to 69%.
There is also a legal battle raging over access to the abortion pill mifepristone, which – as part of a two pill protocol – accounts for more than half of abortions in the US. It was approved by the public health regulator, the FDA, more than two decades ago but a judge in Texas recently ruled that it is unsafe. If mifepristone was to be taken off the shelves it would drastically alter – once more – abortion access across the country.
Deborah tells me she is speaking out so no other woman has to go through what she did. “I want other people to see how complex abortion is, and to help them realise that maybe it should be left up to the doctor and the woman. Politicians shouldn’t be involved.”