Tennessee woman denied abortion after fetus’ ‘brain not attached’ slams state ban

State lawmakers ‘don’t see the mourning and the grieving that these moms’ experience after getting a heartbreaking diagnosis, Breanna Cecil tells Kelly Rissman

Monday 13 May 2024 17:55 BST
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Breanna Cecil and her husband in 2021
Breanna Cecil and her husband in 2021 (Handout)

A Tennessee woman who was denied an abortion despite a fatal abnormality says the state’s anti-abortion laws resulted in her losing an ovary, a fallopian tube and her hopes for a large family.

“The state of Tennessee took my fertility from me,” Breanna Cecil, 34, told The Independent. She added that state lawmakers “took away my opportunity to have a family like my own biological family because of these horrible laws that they put in place.”

The mother-of-one said she has not felt the same since her doctor told her in January 2023 that her fetus was diagnosed with acrania, a fatal condition where the fetus has no skull bones.

Then, 12 weeks pregnant, Ms Cecil was getting her first ultrasound. She attended the appointment alone, so when the doctor told her the fetus was not viable outside the womb, she was left with only asking the doctor what she should do.

However, she was left with few options. The state’s near-total abortion ban prevents anyone from getting an abortion if there is still a heartbeat - which her fetus still had.

The law makes no exceptions for fatal conditions and also criminalizes physicians who perform the procedure outside of the allowed exceptions.

Ms Cecil recalled the doctor not knowing how to respond to her question about her options.

“That’s something that no one should ever hear,” she noted.

The doctor set her up with a specialist, where another ultrasound was conducted. That scan was more difficult, she says, because she could see the severity of the fetus’ condition. “I could see the brain not attached,” Ms Cecil said.

The only advice doctors could give offer was that if she had her second child it would “most likely die inside of me before 20 weeks” and she would be forced to deliver a stillborn.

The news was crushing as Ms Cecil said her pregnancy was starting to show. Not only could she not “mentally handle” the well-intentioned questions about the baby’s due date and sex, she said she could not be a “good mom to [her] little boy” if she was forced to go through with her pregnancy, and deliver the stillborn.

She decided to get an abortion.

Breanna Cecil and her husband in 2021
Breanna Cecil and her husband in 2021 (Handout)

After “sobbing to receptionists” at roughly 20 clinics and hospitals in a desperate attempt to get an appointment, she finally had success. A hospital in Chicago had an opening. On 3 February, doctors performed a dilation and curettage procedure.

Just six days after returning to Tennessee, thinking the worst was behind her, Ms Cecil started experiencing a fever and back pain. Her doctor gave her antibiotics, but something still wasn’t right.

She went for another ultrasound and the physician found retained tissue leftover from the fetus, which can have serious consequences. Doctors performed another procedure on Ms Cecil hoping it would be the end.

Her fever persisted and two days later, she returned to the hospital, where doctors discovered she had a nine-centimeter-sized abscess in her abdomen that encompassed some of her reproductive organs.

Doctors had to perform emergency surgery on her, and removed her right ovary and fallopian tube.

Ms Cecil returned home after a grueling 10 days in the hospital.

Ms Cecil and her husband had spent nearly a year trying to conceive that pregnancy. “Fertility and infertility is really hard to go through in itself,” she said, noting the couple thought they’d finally gotten through the difficult stage.

So when news of the fetus’ condition hit, she blamed herself and asked the nurses: “Did I do something wrong?”

Since her third procedure, she and her husband have not been able to become pregnant. Ms Cecil doesn’t think it’s a coincidence and wonders if not for Tennessee law, would she still have her fertility?

“Right now I feel like they took that away from me,” the 34-year-old said of state lawmakers.

Ms Cecil said she wanted to make clear to legislators that “abortion is not black and white,” explaining that every situation is different.

Like Texas woman Kate Cox, who was also denied the procedure in her home state, Ms Cecil wants a large family; neither woman falls within the stereotype that many on the right are portraying as abortion candidates.

The young mother added pregnant people who need an abortion shouldn’t feel like they need to beg for permission from lawmakers who do not have medical backgrounds.

Often, women in these situation are “deciding if we want our child to suffer” after being born or are “waiting until they die inside of us,” Ms Cecil said.

She added she still doesn’t feel normal more than a year after the pregnancy. Physically, she has a scar that stretches from her belly button down to her pelvic bone that has caused her fat to become displaced. Emotionally, she said, “I think about that baby all the time.”

While she and her husband have been trying for another baby, she often breaks down and thinks, “I just want that baby. Why didn’t that work out?”

Ms Cecil contemplated joining a group of women, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, who were denied abortions and are now fighting the state’s prohibition, asking for “clarity” on the ban’s medical exceptions.

The state of Tennessee took my fertility from me

Breanna Cecil

She decided not to become a plaintiff in the case because she feared others’ opinions of her decisions.

On 4 April, a three-judge panel listened to arguments from lawyers from the center and the state about a temporary block of the abortion ban. The center’s attorneys mentioned a series of heartbreaking stories from the plaintiff — as well as a woman whose baby was diagnosed with acrania.

That’s the same condition that Ms Cecil’s fetus was diagnosed with.

The three-judge panel has yet to rule on the temporary injunction in a state that is one of 14 across the nation that made abortion illegal since the end of Roe v Wade in June 2022.

After hearing the oral arguments, Ms Cecil now wants to join the case. “If someone doesn’t ever want to hire me again because of what happened to me, I just don’t care. I’m not gonna let that bother me anymore,” she said.

She’s lived in Tennessee since she was seven years old, and while she has been tempted to leave, she refuses to let the anti-abortion crowd force her from her home.

“I can’t back down and let them win this battle,” Ms Cecil said.

If you have been affected by this story and want to share yours, you can reach out to kelly.rissman@independent.co.uk

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