Abortion rally

Protestors chant and carry signs on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, during an abortion rights march to the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Cécile Girard, a Lake Charles native, visited a doctor as a high school sophomore to go on birth control. The doctor was adamantly against it.

He told her she had a heart condition that meant the medication would be dangerous. No other doctor corroborated this condition, Girard said.

That experience and stories of women having difficulty accessing abortions in Louisiana drove her to the pre-medicine track in hopes of becoming an OB-GYN. 

Girard will begin her medical training at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans in August amid a near-total abortion ban—and with a splintered vision of her future.

“It might be, you know, less emotionally fraught to go into some other fields,” she said. “Or it makes me think that I don't know if I would want to stay in Louisiana.”

Girard is one of the aspiring young doctors struggling to see a future in a state where treating a miscarrying patient could lead to a criminal investigation. Louisiana’s trigger law went into effect in July after Roe v. Wade was overturned, allowing abortions only when the pregnant person’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is medically futile.

But these stated exceptions have meant little practically for doctors. Physicians with questions have been turned away from the state health department and directed to Attorney General Jeff Landry, who sent letters to every doctor in the state saying he would prosecute anyone who violated the abortion law.

State Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, a Democrat from New Orleans who opposes the law, said the doctors she’s spoken to don’t even know what medically futile means. It’s a legal term, not a medical one, she said.

Patients have been left to pay the price of the uncertainty.

A Baton Rouge woman had to travel to New York in September to get an abortion after learning her baby would be born without a skull. Doctors in Louisiana refused to perform the procedure.

The woman, Nancy Davis, organized an abortion rights rally on the 50th anniversary of the passage of Roe v. Wade in January. She said the Louisiana law is putting women’s lives in danger.

Abortion rally

Rally organizer Nancy Davis speaks about her abortion experience on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, from the Capitol steps in Baton Rouge, La.

“It’s a traumatic experience,” Davis told the Reveille at the rally. “It’s already traumatic enough to grasp that your baby has a lethal and fatal condition and that they’re non-viable outside the womb.”

Davis isn’t the only woman who has felt the consequence of the law. Another woman, Kaitlyn Joshua, was turned away from two Baton Rouge emergency rooms as she experienced heavy bleeding and pain, NPR reported. No doctor would confirm that she was miscarrying. She lost her baby.

For Tiffany Dang, a soon-to-be biological sciences grad from Louisiana State University, these stories have made it harder to imagine practicing medicine in the state. 

Dang’s first choice for a medical specialty is psychiatry and second is OB-GYN. Like Girard, she will attend LSU Health New Orleans in the fall.

“It's scary to think that I would have to be complicit in a healthcare system that is forcing this person to carry a pregnancy to term,” Dang said. 

Dang said that if she decides to become an OB-GYN, she would leave Louisiana. 

“I would definitely have to go to a state that supports women's health to the fullest extent and in a state where I wouldn't be jeopardized for the oath that I took whenever I entered med school,” Dang said. 

State Sen. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat who represents New Orleans, said the state’s abortion law prevents doctors from using their discretion to protect patients’ lives.

“I don't think that lawmakers like myself or my colleagues should be trying to play doctor and inserting themselves into the process between a doctor and a patient,” he said. “And that's what this law does.”

Abortion rally

State Senator Royce Duplessis speaks to the crowd on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, as part of the abortion rights rally in Baton Rouge, La.

Lawmakers often lament Louisiana’s “brain drain,” or the exodus of young college grads from the state. Duplessis fears the abortion law only worsens that problem.

“This does not make us an attractive state for people to want to move to,” he said. “We're already doing everything that we can to keep people in Louisiana. This is a way to, unfortunately, keep people out of Louisiana.”

A biological sciences junior at LSU, who requested anonymity to avoid personal backlash, is applying to medical school in the summer. She has wanted to be a doctor since she was 14 and leans toward specializing in either physical rehabilitation or high-risk maternal patients. 

But, like Girard, the state’s abortion law has shaken her plans. She isn’t sure she could stay in Louisiana if she pursues maternal health, but she’s also questioning whether she should enter that specialty at all.

“I'm trying to weigh in my head, is it worth it for me to go to OB-GYN, whenever I do have to deal with these things, these laws that come out that police what a doctor can do?” she said.

The woman said she wants to think she would do what’s right for the patient regardless of the personal legal risk. But, with doctors potentially facing more than a decade in prison, she isn’t sure.

“I mean, obviously, it's easy to say, ‘Oh, because I care, I'll do the right thing no matter what,’” she said. “But then also, if I've worked this long, and medicine has been my dream since I was 14, I don't know if I would make that decision.”

Girard, too, finds herself struck by that dilemma. She thinks she’d take care of her patient, and she worries the ban will leave behind the doctors who wouldn’t.

She struggles to decide if it’s a fight she wants to wage.

“Is it worth sacrificing so much of my own…peace of mind and daily stability and whatever just to stand up to this system that I don't agree with?” she said.

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