/ Modified apr 10, 2024 6:57 p.m.

Hours after near-total ban upheld: Providers in AZ abortion clinic fear for patients' lives

On Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a Civil War-era law that bans nearly all abortions, except to save the life of a pregnant person.

abortion protest signs
Gage Judd/AZPM

Due to concerns about personal safety, AZPM News has chosen not to name the clinic or some of its staff.

In the hours after the state’s high court ruled to uphold an abortion ban made in 1864, one abortion clinic continued doing business as usual. Registered nurse Michele kept assisting patients through the news, but when it came time to talk about what happened, she choked up. 

“I feel like a patient when the patients come in, and they get all nervous, and then I'm like, It's okay; it's fine,” Michele said. “But you know, you're processing everything and it's very, pretty emotional.”

Michele has worked at this clinic for more than 12 years and has seen a lot of regulatory change, but she says that doesn't make it any easier.

“We're trying to just kind of like say, Oh, this will change. But you know, that other states have had the same situation, and then they haven't been able to fix it…it’s just unbelievable.”

Michele isn’t the only one concerned. Fellow nurse Ashleigh says with the ban she is now worried about how overworked emergency rooms will treat patients who need an abortion to save their lives.

“It's the same problem over and over again–way too many patients, not enough nurses, hospitals that don't give a crap if there’re safe nurse to patient ratios,” Ashleigh said. “But also, they probably don't have frickin time. They're probably missing things because they're overworked and understaffed.”

She says her fears are based on reality. In January, Arizona’s Department of Health Services found that nearly 87% of maternal deaths per year were preventable.

“We sent one girl to the emergency room three times because she had an ectopic pregnancy,” Ashleigh recalled. “They turned her away two times and the last time we had to send her back with like, a note from our doctor telling them what was going on.”

Now with the ban, providers, like Dr. Atsuko Koyama, will need to determine what exactly will be considered life-threatening.

“That's not a real medical thing,” Koyama said. ”There's no definition of what close enough to death means to a legislator…Right? These are medical decisions that should be between a physician and the patient.”

Koyama has seen firsthand how abortions can save a life. She recalled seeing one patient who was diagnosed with postpartum cardiomyopathy, meaning her heart could fail in the last month of pregnancy and anytime in the months immediately after. 

“If she has another child, she could potentially die and she doesn't want to die. Of course, she doesn't want to die. She wants to watch her child, you know, grow up and graduate from high school and get married. So yeah, she'd like to stick around to see all that and having access to abortion allows her to do that, right? It allows her to be there for her own child.”

The staff in this clinic say they remain optimistic that Arizonans will codify access, but until then, some, like Ashleigh, will remain busy.

“Honestly, I work another job and I'm just gonna go right into that and distract myself to the point where I am so tired, I go to sleep. Just distraction, just keep on working. Right? If you don't stop working, then you can't overthink things.”

Without further regulatory action, abortions in Arizona will nearly cease in the coming weeks.

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