This OB-GYN was terrified for her patients who needed abortions. Then she became one.

Courtesy Photo: Dr. Austin Dennard. Image Credit: Splash Cinema

By Bonnie Fuller

February 19, 2024

Texas OB-GYN Austin Dennard reveals what a future under a Republican president would do to reproductive rights in America. 

 

Dr. Austin Dennard is an obstetrician gynecologist (OB-GYN) in Dallas, Texas. You may have seen her speaking in support of the re-election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, or heard about her participation in a lawsuit against the state of Texas. You may already know that where she lives has been the scene of horrific treatment of women since the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade

After Texas passed the “Heartbeat Act” in 2021—which banned abortions after six weeks’ gestation (before many women even know they’re pregnant)—Dr. Dennard’s patients began coming to her with concerns. A dedicated physician, Dennard did her best to help them through fears of pregnancy complications and future fertility issues. 

Then, in 2022, Dennard became a patient who needed an abortion. 

She and her husband, Linden, also an OB-GYN, were already parents to two toddlers and wanted to grow their family. Dennard had recently suffered a natural miscarriage, so when she became pregnant again, the couple was especially vigilant about her prenatal care. They never expected that this new pregnancy would result in Austin fleeing the state to have a heartbreaking but necessary abortion. 

Now, Dennard is fighting back against the state that’s become a hell on earth for pregnant women—and the extreme Republicans working to make it a reality for every state in the nation. Dennard agreed to sit for an interview with me, sharing her story in her own words.  

Our mid-February conversation started with the immediate impact of Texas’ six-week abortion ban, which went into effect on Sept. 1, 2021.

Bonnie Fuller: As an OB-GYN, what were your thoughts when the 2021 abortion ban passed?

Dr. Austin Dennard: “[I] felt so many different emotions. I felt shocked that we had somehow as a society allowed this to happen. It felt like the rug had just been pulled out from under us.

“I am not particularly political. I’m very focused on taking care of my patients and staying up to date with the latest recommendations for medicine and taking care of patients. I wasn’t honestly really paying attention to what was happening in the background, which was this chipping away at our reproductive rights and the idea when I was a medical student or in residency that Roe would get overturned. It just was something I never could have fathomed would happen.

“So it was shocking but startling…scary, all of those feelings of just, wow, I can’t even believe that we’re in the situation that we’re in now. And then quickly the next step was, ‘This is disaster-mode relief. How are we going to practice medicine in a scenario like this? What can we do to get together to try to keep patients safe? What is our hospital going to do to help support us?’ It was truly like a frenzy when we heard the news.

 

Bonnie Fuller: How long was it before you were faced with the reality of this happening to your own patients when they came in and wanted or needed an abortion?

Austin Dennard: “Almost immediately, we started realizing in real time what was going to happen, what the repercussions of these incredibly restrictive laws were going to result in. And there we were trying to grapple with these new laws and how to continue to provide excellent and safe care for our patients. 

Editor’s Note: Texas’ six-week abortion ban not only makes it illegal to do abortion procedures in Texas unless a pregnant woman is experiencing a “life-threatening medical emergency” or “is at serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function,” but also prohibits doctors and anyone else from “aiding” or “abetting” an abortion—even giving private citizens the right to file a civil claim against anyone they suspect of doing so. 

That means doctors are extremely limited in any advice they can give to pregnant women who may need to end their pregnancies. Plus, the vague language of the law makes it hard for doctors in Texas to know with certainty what constitutes a medical emergency. The law allows doctors to be fined $100,000 or more for performing or aiding an abortion. They can also lose their medical license and be criminally charged with a first-degree felony, punishable by five to 99 years in prison.

 

Bonnie Fuller: With the ban in place, how have you advised patients who may need an abortion—especially if their health is potentially at risk? 

Dr. Dennard: “It was up to my own individual risk-benefit analysis in my brain of what I thought I was safe to tell someone. It was up to the individual and, frankly, I was terrified. I know a lot of my colleagues were terrified, and that’s just in our specific specialty. Physicians—colleagues in all different specialties—immediately became terrified. 

“The way I try to describe it is, imagine you or someone that you love is diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and the doctor says to you, ‘You have a brain tumor that’s benign, but it’s slowly going to grow and the longer that it grows, the higher risk to your health. Now, I can’t perform a procedure to remove that tumor, I don’t know how to do that, but now the state that we live in is preventing me from being able to tell you where to go out of state to receive this life-saving care.’

“And when I describe it that way, I think people really understand how intrusive it feels as a patient and as the physician to be put in this situation where standard medical practice has now been removed as an option for physicians to practice and for patients to receive in our state. That decision was made by politicians and is in no way is supported by any medical society.

 

Bonnie Fuller: After Roe V. Wade was overturned, did you worry that you could personally be affected if you were to get pregnant again?

Dr. Dennard: “When Roe fell, my husband and I knew we wanted to expand our family, and we sat down together one night after our toddlers were in bed and had the discussion of what will we do in a situation where we need care if we are going to expand our family? And we came up with a plan of what we thought was kind of a safety measure for my health due to these laws.

“And you make plans like that thinking you’re never going to need to follow through with that plan, but because my husband and I are both OB-GYNs and we did understand what was going on and we were seeing patients in real time needing care, it was at the forefront of our minds. 

“So we came up with a plan and I never really thought that I was going to need to follow through with it. …it truly was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do as a family.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: How did you find out that the fetus you were carrying had a fatal fetal anomaly and would not be able to survive under any circumstances?

Dr. Dennard: “Well, I am in a very privileged situation where I myself am a physician with a very close relationship with my doctor. I have insurance, I have access to care, I have an understanding of medicine. My story, I always remind people, is a story of true privilege and it’s my privilege that helped me receive the abortion care that I needed. 

“In a nutshell, I found out I was pregnant. We were absolutely delighted. We were so excited. I’d recently gone through a natural miscarriage a few months prior, so we were delighted to have the chance to grow our family, which is what we really, really, truly wanted. I saw my doctor, I received my routine blood work early in my pregnancy, and when I came back for my second visit to undergo another ultrasound and routine genetic screening for my pregnancy, it was discovered that there was no cranium on our baby, which is a diagnosis called anencephaly—or AIA is another term for it—and it’s a lethal diagnosis.

“In other words, this was never going to be a little brother or a little sister for my children. And sitting there in the ultrasound suite looking up at the screen, realizing as a physician what was going on, but also as a mother coming to that conclusion, was a moment I will never forget. And it still brings tears to my eyes anytime I think about it.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: How did it further complicate things, to know that you likely couldn’t terminate your pregnancy in your home state of Texas?

Dr. Dennard: “I was only 11 weeks [into my pregnancy]. I say only because so many times this diagnosis is not made until the anatomy ultrasound, which most women receive halfway through their pregnancy, closer to 18 to 20 weeks. I just so happened to be lucky enough to be receiving an earlier ultrasound [so] that it was caught earlier. 

“It doesn’t make it any easier. It didn’t matter in my state that we found this diagnosis early. It did not matter that this baby was never going to survive outside my womb. It didn’t matter that I was a doctor. It didn’t matter that I was a sixth-generation Texan. In that moment, I realized that I had no control over my body, over my baby—all that control and all those decisions were being made by the state, and that’s a feeling of complete hopelessness.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: How were you able to eventually get the abortion that you needed? 

Dr Dennard: “Through my privilege, I was able to connect with providers that live in states where the standard medical practice there is access to care. And I had a very safe procedure done by a fellowship-trained family-planning physician in the office on the East Coast and was able to walk out of the office having received this care and travel back to Dallas. 

“But I want to emphasize that even in that perfect scenario, the perfect scenario of having access to care, early diagnosis, understanding my diagnosis, understanding really the implications of continuing the pregnancy versus having an abortion, the pain and suffering persists regardless of the privilege. I was having to pack my bags and wonder, ‘What do I pack for an out-of-state abortion? Do I pack a dark dress? Do I wear pants? Do I need to bring pads or adult diapers while I’m on the airplane? Will I start bleeding heavily?’ 

“I understand what the procedure is. I understand that it’s very low-risk to have the procedure done, but having a procedure done by a complete stranger in a state that I’ve never been in before or traveled to is still really, really scary and traumatic. It’s something that no one should ever have to go through, regardless of their privilege.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: How did undergoing an abortion preserve your health and fertility for future pregnancies?

Dr. Dennard: “There are always risks in pregnancy, but in my specific diagnosis, there were increased risks and my pregnancy would’ve continued to be considered a high risk to my health, but I did not have the choice of whether or not to continue vs. discontinue the pregnancy. There are patients who will choose to continue a pregnancy with anencephaly, and that is okay. That is their choice. The woman should be able to choose that. But in the state of Texas, there is no choice but to continue. 

“So, specifically for anencephaly, there’s [risk of] severe preeclampsia, there is [risk of] hemorrhage, there is risk of surgical removal of the fetus…increased risk of polyhydramnios, which is when there’s way too much fluid in the bag of water that can cause a lot of discomfort, pain…increased risk of hysterectomy. My future fertility was at stake as well.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: You joined a lawsuit with 21 other women to try to force the state of Texas to clarify and potentially add medical exceptions to the abortion ban. How did you decide to speak out and take legal action after your abortion?  

Dr. Dennard: “It was a process for me because, immediately after my abortion, I was in a dark state of grief. I was scared. I was extremely sad. And the way these laws have been created, there is such an emphasis on staying silent that you feel that oppression immediately coming back from your procedure. If you talk about it, you might get in trouble. I could get my [medical] license revoked, my husband potentially could get his license revoked. 

“What if someone hears about our story and accuses my husband for aiding and abetting my abortion? We were just very terrified to talk. And as time went on and I started healing emotionally and physically from my procedure, I thought to myself, ‘Something good has to come of this horrible loss and trauma that we have experienced as a family and that I’m seeing with my patients.’ I didn’t quite know what that would mean. I didn’t know how that was going to manifest. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was something I wanted to be able to do.”

Editor’s Note: Dr. Dennard became a plaintiff in Zurawski v. State of Texas, which aims to force the Texas courts to clarify the abortion law by specifically naming which medical exceptions could qualify a woman for a legal abortion in the state, including women carrying a fetus with a fatal diagnosis. The case is now before the Texas Supreme Court awaiting a decision

 

Bonnie Fuller: What is your message to women both inside and outside of Texas, that you’d like to share as an OB-GYN and patient?

Dr. Dennard: “This is a public health crisis, and we need to be saying the word abortion more. We need to be talking about abortion when we are sitting at the soccer game, in the carpool line, at the dining room table, drinking coffee with our sisters and our friends and our husbands and our brothers. 

“We need to be talking about this out loud because it’s a public health crisis and this is not a drill. This is truly happening in Texas every day. And I know it’s hard to believe if you’re sitting in New York City or if you’re sitting in California to even fathom that these stories are happening, but they are happening and they’re part of my daily life.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: Why is it so important for women and the people who love them to vote against Republican lawmakers who support abortion bans in November 2024?

Dr. Dennard: “At the end of the day, regardless of what political party you align with, if these stories are really impacting you, then you need to vote like they do. 

“I have people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for what you’re doing. I can’t believe what’s happening in this country. I’m so worried for my daughter or myself or my sister.’ I appreciate when women come up to me—and men—and give me a big hug and tell me, ‘Thank you,’ but I want them to vote like they’re really sorry about what’s going on. I hope that this particular subject really influences the bottom line for voters this year.”

 

Bonnie Fuller: Donald Trump reportedly favors a 16-week abortion ban for states that have no abortion ban in place. What do you see happening if he’s elected?  

Dr. Dennard:If Donald Trump is elected and enacts a national abortion ban, you would have to leave the country if you needed an abortion. You would have to buy a plane ticket to go across the border to receive standard medical care. And that’s only for the most privileged people. Pregnant women will die, children will be without their mothers, partners will be without their wives, families will be broken.”

Editor’s Note: Dr. Dennard filmed a short campaign ad for Joe Biden’s campaign in which she shares her own harrowing story as described above. See it here

Author

  • Bonnie Fuller

    Bonnie Fuller is the former CEO & Editor-in-Chief of HollywoodLife.com, and the former Editor-in-Chief of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, USWeekly and YM. She now writes about politics and reproductive rights.

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