Dr. Dani Mathisen had made careful plans for her daughter.
Mathisen, a Fort Worth native, and her husband decided they wanted to get pregnant during Mathisen’s last year of medical school at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Right on schedule, Mathisen learned she was pregnant.
The high school sweethearts joked about whether their daughter would attend Mathisen’s Fort Worth alma mater—Trinity Valley School — or his.
But their careful plans couldn’t account for everything. When Mathisen, now 28, went to get an anatomy scan in September 2021, when she was about 18 weeks pregnant, the ultrasound was clear: Her daughter’s brain had not developed, there was a hole in her spine, and she had just one kidney, among other issues.
Mathisen’s doctor told her the diagnoses were fatal, but had few options for the devastated parents. At the time, Texas’ Senate Bill 8 had just gone into effect, and all abortions after six weeks gestation were outlawed. Mathisen decided to travel to New Mexico to get an abortion.
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A little more than two years later, Mathisen has joined 19 other Texas women who were denied abortions and who are now suing the state over its abortion regulations. The plaintiffs, who also include two doctors, are seeking greater clarity on when doctors are allowed to perform abortions in cases of a medical emergency. Technically, Texas’ abortion laws do make exceptions for cases when the pregnant person’s life is in danger. But doctors have said the language is too vague for them to feel confident providing an abortion and risk going to prison.
“You’re already making the hardest decision of your life,” Mathisen said about her pregnancy and subsequent abortion. “And then on top of that, you have to be made to feel like a criminal because you can’t do it in your own state.”
Mathisen, who herself is an obstetrician gynecologist, had planned to join a long line of Fort Worth doctors in her family. But after her pregnancy, she decided to go to a residency program in Hawaii, in part because abortion remains legal there. Mathisen said she needed the training and to be able to offer her patients the options that she herself did not have.
‘There’s nothing that resembles a normal brain structure’
Mathisen was overjoyed when she learned she was pregnant in 2021.
She carefully planned how to reveal the news to her husband. She got a baby onesie with “Hi” printed on the front, and hid it in their pile of laundry. While the two were folding clothes, he came across the baby’s clothes and realized what it meant.
“He makes the highest pitch sound I’ve ever heard this man make,” she said.
They couldn’t wait to be parents, she said.
The early weeks of Mathisen’s pregnancy progressed normally. Their baby would be the family’s first grandchild.
At 18 weeks, Mathisen and her husband went in for an anatomy scan. They expected a chance to take cute photos and see their healthy girl in black and white on the ultrasound screen.
Instead, Mathisen immediately knew something was wrong. She had just completed her ultrasound rotation in medical school, and knew what a healthy pregnancy was supposed to look like.
Instead, there were a number of troubling signs: There was something at the base of her daughter’s spine that wasn’t supposed to be there. There was only one kidney. Her hands and feet were malformed.
“She’s scanning the brain, and there’s nothing that resembles a normal brain structure,” Mathisen said.
After the scan, Mathisen met with her OB-GYN, who was also her aunt, in her office.
“Is it lethal?” she asked.
“Yes,” her aunt said.
With Senate Bill 8 in effect, Mathisen’s aunt couldn’t offer much additional guidance, except to tell her that her daughter was almost certain to die during the course of the pregnancy. There was a small chance she could survive the pregnancy, but if she did she would likely die in her first few days of life.
Mathisen and her husband decided that ending the pregnancy was the best option. They began a frantic search for a clinic that had open appointments. Abortion clinics in Colorado were completely booked, Mathisen said. They eventually found an appointment at a clinic in New Mexico. Mathisen ended her pregnancy in the clinic with a doctor she didn’t know and with most of her loved ones back in Texas. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, her husband couldn’t join her, and she was alone.
As she decided where to continue her training as an OB-GYN, Mathisen realized she had to leave her home state.
“This is something I have to learn how to do for my patients,” she said about providing abortions as part of the full range of obstetrical and gynecological care. “And I couldn’t stay in Texas anymore if it was not going to be an option to learn about it.”
A challenge to Texas state law
About nine months after Mathisen’s pregnancy ended, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, paving the way for a Texas state law to go into effect banning all abortions except in rare cases.
After the landmark case was overturned, Mathisen decided to share her story publicly on social media. Her message took off, reaching thousands of people. She was later invited to speak with President Joe Biden about her experience.
The case Mathisen joined was first filed in March by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of five Texas women who were denied abortions. Since then, Mathisen and 14 others who were denied abortions have joined the suit. In August, a Texas district judge sided with plaintiffs, and issued an injunction blocking the state’s abortion ban with regards to patients with complications. The state attorney general immediately appealed the decision, and the case is now before the Texas Supreme Court. All state laws regarding abortion remain in effect.
Attorneys for the state have said the laws do not prohibit doctors from providing abortions in the cases cited in the suit, and that the plaintiffs “plaintiffs sustained their alleged injuries as a direct result of their own medical providers failing them.”
Nick Kabat, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said many Texans wrongly believe that abortions can be easily provided during medical emergencies. But the definition of a medical emergency is open to interpretation, he said.
“For doctors, they have to make a guess at what the attorney general or a local district attorney will think is permissible or not,” he said. “They’re getting no guidance. And if they guess wrong, they’re looking at 99 years in prison, loosing their license, and financial ruin through very heavy penalties.”
Under Texas law, performing an abortion is a felony and punishable by up to life in prison, and the attorney general can also seek a civil penalty of at least $100,000, plus attorney’s fees.
A ruling is expected from the Supreme Court sometime on or before June 28, which is the last day when the court will issue orders for its current term.
And while Mathisen is waiting for a ruling in the case, she’s also waiting for something else: She is pregnant again, and was able to breathe a sigh of relief after she made it through the anatomy scan that showed a healthy baby.