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Texas Supreme Court Ruling in Zurawski v. State of Texas Endangers Patients and Clinicians  

The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling today rejected the challenge to the state’s abortion restrictions, exposing both pregnant patients and physicians to significant risk, said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).  

In Zurawski v. State of Texas, the Texas Supreme Court refused to clarify the medical exceptions to the state’s abortion ban. The case was brought on behalf of 20 Texans who were denied abortions due to the uncertainty caused by Texas’s abortion bans, as well as two obstetrician gynecologists working under these state laws. 

“Dozens of physicians and hospital staff in states with abortion bans like those in Texas have told PHR that these vaguely worded laws are causing widespread confusion and ultimately great risk to their pregnant patients,” said Payal K. Shah, Director of PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence. “The Court rejected the evidence presented by PHR and others and instead placed the risk back on physicians to interpret the non-medical terminology reflected in these laws.”  

PHR filed an amicus brief in this case on November 22, 2023, presenting evidence that Texas’s bans provide no actionable medical guidance and use nonmedical terminology. These conditions trap clinicians in a “double bind” between the threat of criminal penalty including life imprisonment for performing an abortion that violates the law, and the risk of malpractice liability for not performing an abortion that could have protected the life of a pregnant patient. The denial of abortion due to unworkable medical conditions can lead to severe physical and mental suffering for pregnant persons, violating international human rights.   

In interviews with clinicians in states with abortions bans conducted by PHR, clinicians have repeatedly expressed that the legal terms used in state laws fail to align with medical terminology and create significant confusion, especially for clinicians treating patients who need abortions to preserve their lives or health. In Louisiana, physicians said that the confusion caused by the state’s abortion ban has led to widespread delays and denials of both abortion care and prenatal care. In Oklahoma, which had four abortion bans at the time of PHR’s 2023 study, not a single hospital could articulate clear, consistent policies for emergency obstetric care that supported their clinicians’ ability to make decisions based solely on their clinical judgement and pregnant patients’ stated preferences and needs. Similarly, clinicians treating patients in and from Idaho shared numerous accounts of how the state’s ban and unworkable medical exceptions are resulting in patients being denied lifesaving care and ultimately needing to travel at great personal and financial risk to receive treatment. 

“The Texas Supreme Court’s decision sets a dangerous precedent for all physicians and their pregnant patients in the United States. The ruling essentially affirms that even where lawmakers pass unscientific and unworkable laws regulating medicine, the state can enforce these laws against clinicians who are simply exercising their good faith medical judgment to treat their patients. Physicians for Human Rights stands with physicians around the country in condemning this ruling,” Shah said. 

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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