Ohio Woman Forced to Travel Out of State for Abortion

When Tara George’s cell phone rang with a number from Michigan one evening in early August, she knew it would not be good news. When she picked up the phone, the doctor apologized for her call and informed her that her abortion appointment would be cancelled the following day.

Tara’s husband, Justin, who had been downstairs in their northeast Ohio home, came up to check on her when he heard the phone ring. Tara, who was still listening to her doctor, quietly shook her heads. She hung up, then she broke down in tears.

It was meant to be an exciting time for the George family. The Georges were thrilled to have Tara (34), their first child. But six days before the doctor’s phone call, with Tara 20 weeks pregnant, the couple had learned their fetus would not likely survive outside the womb. Tara’s OB-GYN told her that if she tried to carry the baby to term, Tara could become dangerously ill or suffer a blood clot that could threaten her life. This was just the beginning of what the couple described as a “never-ending nightmare.”

Even as the Georges’ doctor explained there was nothing else they could do for the baby, she informed Tara and Justin that they couldn’t terminate Tara’s pregnancy in Ohio. The hospital said it wasn’t confident her conditions met the limited exceptions in the state’s new six-week abortion ban, passed in 2019 and put into effect the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade. Quickly, the couple arranged for them to travel to Michigan. But days later, a Michigan appeals court ruled that county prosecutors in the state could start enforcing the state’s 1931 abortion ban. As they attempted to figure out the legal changes, all abortions in Michigan had been stopped by the hospital that the Georges had made arrangements to visit. For the second time in less than a week, Tara and Justin were being denied an abortion they didn’t want to be seeking—but that they and Tara’s doctors agreed was medically necessary—because of the cascade of state laws going into effect without Roe.

In the two months since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationA third of the states that have banned complete or severely restricted abortion are in this category. A complex web of new laws and old ones resurrected by the Court’s decision have rapidly changed the legal terrain for a wide range of health care. Many laws, some of which were written more than a century ago, include no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal anomalies, and even exceptions for the pregnant person’s life or health are often vague or confusing. As judges consider challenges, abortion law is constantly changing in many states. The federal courts of Texas and Idaho came to opposite conclusions at the end August about whether physicians should provide abortions in an emergency situation. These rulings were based upon federal guidance. “This is just a perpetuation of the chaos that has started since Dobbs came down,” says Greer Donley, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on abortion rights. “The abortion bans are vague—some think that they’re intentionally vague—doctors don’t know how to interpret them, there’s conflicting federal guidance and federal law.”

Abortion clinics are often reluctant to accept patients in this fast-changing and murky environment. However, they will call them back if a court case succeeds. Tara eventually got an abortion at a hospital in Michigan amid a sudden change in the procedure’s legal status there. Other clinics have stopped offering abortions even if laws haven’t officially taken effect because conservative prosecutors or other officials have threatened to enforce bans preemptively even as their state’s legality remains unclear. As more patients from outside the state travel seeking care, waiting times increase in areas where abortion remains legal. Patients with serious complications of pregnancy such as miscarriages, premature rupture or ectopic pregnancies and ectopic pregnancy are experiencing dangerous delays at hospitals because they fear being confused and afraid.

Ohio’s law prohibits abortions after cardiac activity is detected, which can happen around six weeks into pregnancy. The law has an exception for cases that involve a “medical emergency,” which includes situations that could cause a pregnant person’s death or pose a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” But other than a few specific conditions listed in the law itself, doctors and their lawyers have largely been left to interpret what falls under this exception on their own. It is now common for doctors to consult with lawyers in order to obtain second opinions regarding any procedures that could be classified as an abortion. “I know what the medical answer is,” says Dr. Mae Winchester, the maternal-fetal medicine physician overseeing Tara’s care. Winchester did not want to reveal the name of Tara’s hospital because she wasn’t authorized to. “But the legal part is what I’ve never had to deal with here before.”

In honor of Griffyn, Tara wears this necklace.

Maddie McGarvey for TIME

Griffyn Anthony

Justin and Tara grew up just 30 minutes apart in Ohio. The couple met 15 years ago through mutual friends and has been together ever since. The couple got married in 2019 and they had been talking about the possibility of having their second child.

They found out in May that their first child would come as a boy. They were “ecstatic,” Justin says. Each of their families hosted gender reveal parties over Memorial Day Weekend. They settled on Griffyn Anthony for the name.

Tara’s own health meant this would be a high-risk pregnancy, but she wanted to become a mom. She has antiphospholipid antibody syndrome and a Factor V Leiden mutation—blood clotting conditions that put her at high risk for potentially deadly clots. She’d had two serious blood clots, and getting pregnant increased the risk of getting another. Winchester states that the antiphospholipid antibody syndrome is associated with pregnancy loss, and other complications. Justin and Tara were both aware of these risks and prescribed her a blood thinner, which required two injections per day. Her pregnancy was smooth at first.

One month after the Georges settled on their baby’s name, the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade. When Justin posted his frustrations about the news on Facebook, citing his wife’s health risks, some friends who supported the Court’s decision assured him that states like Ohio would protect the life of the mother. Although Justin was annoyed by the exchanges, neither Tara nor he thought that this situation would affect them. Tara was into her second trimester of pregnancy—the point, she thought, where you’re supposed to start telling people the news and making concrete plans for the baby’s arrival. The couple had created a registry: a stroller, car seat, diaper bags, Cleveland Browns onesies, Halloween outfits, and swim diapers—already thinking about future experiences with Griffyn. “We were really thinking, Oh, this is great, this is actually happening,” Tara says.

But then, at their 20-week appointment near the end of July, the sonographer grew quiet, and “almost ran out of the room,” Tara says. Justin rubbed Tara’s arm as the couple waited for what felt like an eternity. Finally, Dr. Winchester returned to the table with the sonographer, and he took another look at his ultrasound machine. “She put the tool down,” Tara recalls, “and just looked at us and said, ‘Unfortunately, we need to have a very serious discussion.’”

The fetus’ bladder, Dr. Winchester explained, had stretched to much larger than its normal size. Lower urinary tract obstruction is indicated by the absence of fluid around the foetus. Pressure from the bladder had built up in the kidneys, and was causing issues there. Research has shown that about one in 5,000 births experiences lower urinary tract obstruction. If there’s no fluid around the fetus because it remains stored in the bladder, this can prevent the lung tissue from developing and make it impossible for the baby to breathe on its own after birth.

That wasn’t all. Winchester also saw something abnormal with the fetus’ heart, so she sent them to a pediatric cardiologist the next day. There, the couple learned more disastrous news: one of the fetus’ heart valves was not properly developing, and even under the best circumstances, he would need surgery right away and a transplant later on. Meanwhile, a second test of the fetus’ urine revealed his kidneys were not functioning at all. “We were holding on to that little bit of hope that his heart would be okay, and he would be able to handle what needed to be done,” Tara says. But serious heart problems and the kidney failure meant the doctors couldn’t put in the shunt they would need to treat the bladder issue, and without that, the fetus was very unlikely to make it to full term, or to survive all the procedures he would need if he were born alive. Winchester said that their chances of leaving the hospital alive for the baby were below 1%.

All these fetal anomalies also put Tara at greater risk for complications like severe preeclampsia, placental abruption—when the placenta detaches from the wall of the uterus—or blood clots that could lead her to have a pulmonary embolism or stroke. “Do I just wait this out and see if something terrible happens?” Tara thought. Justin and Tara discussed Winchester’s situation, and decided that they had to end their pregnancy. “We just thought, at this point, there’s nothing they can do for him,” Tara says.

National chaos:

Winchester warned the couple that with Ohio’s abortion ban in effect, she’d have to ask the hospital for permission to do the procedure there. “I thought this was a no-brainer situation,” Justin says. However, the hospital disagreed. Tara’s health might be at risk, but under Ohio’s new law, they didn’t think it was enough to withstand legal scrutiny, according to Winchester.

Tara recalls feeling “livid” when she heard the news. She describes herself as someone who “doesn’t follow politics” and had previously thought of herself as “pro-choice” only in abstract terms. “There’s so many people that just think it’s black and white. It’s either, okay, you’re getting an abortion because you just don’t want to be pregnant. Or there’s the people that are pro-choice who are like, you should have the right to decide what you want to do with your body. And sometimes it’s not either of those,” she says. “We were put in a situation where we didn’t really have a choice for any kind of happy outcome. And yet, we were still denied.”

Winchester got in touch with physicians in Michigan and Pennsylvania—nearby states where abortion is still legal until later in pregnancy. Research has shown that abortions have much lower risks of complications and death than pregnancy, but because of Tara’s clotting disorders, she would need the procedure done in a hospital. The scheduling was more complicated because the couple needed to be able to trust new doctors and find hotels, pay gas and travel long distances. (Tara, a hair stylist, doesn’t have paid vacation days; Justin, a quality manager at a steel factory, was quickly using his up.) The Michigan hospital allowed Tara to make the first appointment online and she planned to travel up to Michigan the following day to complete her 2-day procedure. Due to the legal difficulties in Michigan, the hospital could not be identified.

Tara was unable to log on to her video appointment at the beginning of August 1st, and this caused the interruption of her plans. In Michigan, abortion is legal until the point of viability—when a fetus can survive outside the womb—usually around 24 weeks, which Tara hadn’t yet reached. However, the state has not repealed the 1931 abortion ban from before RoeRepublicans are now trying to make it a law. While Planned parenthood and Governor. While Planned Parenthood and Gov. The Michigan doctor wasn’t sure what the ruling would mean yet, so she went through with the consultation and promised to update Tara as soon as she knew whether they could move forward.

It was that night when the doctor called to cancel the pregnancy. “It was so taxing on both of us emotionally, even physically,” Justin recalls. “You can’t sleep, you can’t eat. Then you keep receiving these terrible phone calls. You’re canceling hotels, you’re missing time from work, you have to reschedule days. Within a couple of days it was all too much. It was nuts.”

Tara sent Winchester a text message. Winchester said that she would return to Pennsylvania. The next morning, Tara heard from a staffer at the hospital in Pennsylvania that they would do the procedure but wouldn’t be able to fit her in for another week. Tara was currently 21 weeks old and 4 days pregnant. This meant that she was close to the time limit for when other states could help. The state of Pennsylvania also permits abortions for up to 24 weeks. If Pennsylvania didn’t work out, Winchester suggested they consider Illinois or Maryland, both farther trips.

Tara got another call about an hour later from Michigan. This was Tara’s same Michigan doctor who called her to tell her that her hospital had reversed the decision. She could now have her abortion. The Michigan Circuit Judge had given a temporary order of restraining at the end the previous day. This stopped the 1931 ban from being enforced again. If they were able to get there on that day, the hospital could immediately see them, as the law may change.

On Aug. 22, Tara and Justin George were in a park close to their house.

Maddie McGarvey for TIME

‘Am I going to be supported?’

By mid-afternoon, the couple had reached Michigan’s hospital. There, Tara would have a procedure known as a D&E, dilation and evacuation, over two days. On the first day, the doctor would use an injection to stop the fetus’ heart and dilate her cervix to prepare for removing the fetus on the second day.

While they waited, Justin tried to keep the mood light, but Tara couldn’t shake the fear of the doctors canceling again. While they waited, doctors kept trying to fit them in to already packed schedules.

The procedure was successful. Tara started to cry immediately upon waking up. There was some relief. But the reality of her loss and what they’d had to go through finally broke through the shock too. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” Tara says.

Tara and Justin are recovering from their experience, but they can’t stop thinking about all the other women who are going through similar situations without the same resources. They still don’t know whether their insurance will cover Tara’s care and are waiting for the day a potentially crushing bill arrives in the mail. But they know they’re lucky they could afford to travel across state lines, and Winchester told them she can connect them with assistance programs if needed to help pay the medical bills.

Their community should also understand, the couple hopes. The Sunday before Tara’s procedure, they posted a joint message on Facebook telling people “it’s going to take a little longer to start our family.” Many people assumed Tara had a miscarriage, and while their messages were supportive, she knows that some of them are the same ones who publicly cheered Roe’s overturning and supported Ohio’s law. “If we were to tell you what we had to go through, would you still be on our side?” she wondered. “Or would you look at us differently?”

Georges would like to have another baby. They went through a round of genetic testing after returning from Michigan to try to determine what caused their fetus’ anomalies. All of it was clear. However, they know full well that they could become more vulnerable if they have to conceive or have additional medical issues. Conservative Ohio lawmakers and others expressed an interest in further restricting abortion and, in certain cases, trying to prevent people traveling from Ohio to obtain the procedure.

“If we try again, what if all of a sudden there is something else that comes out that prevents travel at all?” Tara says. “Am I going to be supported?”

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