Alabama mother denied abortion despite fetus' 'negligible' chance of survival

The fetus had Down syndrome and a heart defect, among other complications.

May 2, 2023, 6:04 AM

Kelly Shannon was excited when she found out she was pregnant. With a daughter under the age of 2, Shannon and her husband had been actively trying for a second child.

The Alabama couple's happiness quickly turned to heartbreak when testing revealed just three days before Christmas there was an 87% chance the baby had Down syndrome.

Shannon had asked for genetic testing because the couple wanted to tell family the baby's gender at Christmas. She was pregnant with a girl.

"I spent the next few weeks trying not to get too attached, but it's hard not to love a baby you have prayed for," Shannon told ABC News.

At an appointment with a maternal fetal medicine specialist in January, Shannon was counseled on resources available for parents of children with the disorder. However, more scans and test results showed there was evidence of swelling in the baby's head and body wall, a heart defect and a tumor on the baby's abdomen that was about one-third the size of the baby and growing.

Kelly Shannon photographed with her daughter
Courtesy of Kelly Shannon

While none of the baby's conditions on its own would warrant a termination under the guidelines of the one hospital in the state still providing abortions, Shannon's specialist strongly believed this combination of symptoms made it extremely unlikely the pregnancy would survive to term or through labor and delivery. Her physician believed the hospital would be able to provide her with abortion care despite Alabama law prohibiting abortions at all stages of pregnancy.

"The likelihood of the baby surviving was negligible," Shannon said. "Even if she did survive to term, it would be unlikely she'd survived through labor. And if she did survive through labor, then we'd be looking at multiple corrective surgeries immediately after birth."

A report from her physician that was shared with ABC News confirmed the doctor had "conveyed the high likelihood that the findings may lead to an intrauterine demise [of the fetus] due to heart failure or neonatal demise."

Dr. Carrie Rouse, a maternal fetal medicine specialist in Indiana who did not treat Shannon but reviewed some of her records, said that if she would have seen Shannon she would have counseled her on the same options: continuing her pregnancy and providing her the best care available, including potentially delivering early, or terminating the pregnancy.

These are the same options Shannon's specialist in Alabama gave her, according to physician reports shared with ABC News.

"It is truly a tragedy that someone's options for what to do with their pregnancy and their own body is dependent on their zip code," Rouse told ABC News. "I just feel so sad for her and for her family and her physicians that are put in this position to where she can't access -- and they can't provide -- the care that she has been counseled about and has opted for in her own home. It's so hard. It's devastating."

States that Have Restricted Abortion Rights Since Roe v. Wade was Overturned
ABC News Photo Illustration

Alabama is one of 15 states that has ceased nearly all abortion services since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, ending federal protections for abortion rights.

Shannon and her husband decided to pursue termination and she filled out the necessary paperwork. An abortion would need to be approved by several hospital committees made up of doctors.

On Jan. 20, Shannon's specialist called her and informed her that while one committee had approved the abortion, a higher-level committee denied permission, telling Shannon this was the hardest phone call she had to make in her professional career, Shannon said.

"That was probably the lowest, maybe the lowest or second lowest point of the whole traumatic experience," Shannon said. "I was sitting in my car talking to her and I couldn't form words. I just sat there and sobbed. I was in a parking lot and I pulled out my phone, and I texted my husband, I was like, 'I need you to come see me and I need you to bring our daughter.'"

"I didn't even feel like I had the ability to get out of the car until I saw her and had a reason. I didn't have any motivation to move until I could see my daughter again," Shannon added.

The hospital where she received an abortion provided Kelly Shannon with mementos.
Courtesy of Kelly Shannon

Shannon said the committee -- made up of 13 physicians in the University of Alabama, Birmingham's Maternal Fetal Medicine Department -- said its decision was final unless the fetus developed a complication called hydrops fetalis, in which large amounts of fluid build up in a baby's tissues and organs causing extensive swelling.

"The committee felt that since each condition was by itself potentially survivable -- not that they would lead to any kind of quality of life, just that they could potentially lead to life -- that under Alabama law they did not think that my case met the criteria for termination," Shannon said.

Shannon's fetus did not develop hydrops, so she was left unable to access abortion care, she said.

"The other thing that was happening was the state district attorney in Alabama was also going on the news and actively talking about pursuing convictions for anybody in performing abortions in Alabama," Shannon said.

"UAB is the only place in the state that provides that service, so they were also trying really hard to make sure that they could protect their ability to do that for other women," Shannon said.

ABC News requested comment from Shannon's doctor, but they declined. Instead, UAB Hospital said in a statement to ABC News: "UAB does not perform elective abortions. We provide care to women who present to us in need of pregnancy-related care within the law."

Kelly Shannon photographed with her daughter
Courtesy of Kelly Shannon

Shannon had to drive to Richmond, Virginia, to access abortion care. She left at 11 a.m. and arrived in Richmond at 2 a.m., after stopping several times along the way, she said.

The hospital arranged housing for Shannon at no cost through a hotel partner. While her insurance was employer-based and covered the procedure, Shannon said she received a $2,089 bill from Virginia Commonwealth University. She said she had already paid about $600 for the procedure.

The couple said it still hopes to grow their family when they are ready.

"This has been the single most painful and traumatic experience of my life and our lives, and anybody who wants to stand up and say that abortions are wrong or that people shouldn't be able to make their own decisions about abortion care just need to recognize that it's not a black and white issue," Shannon said. "It is complicated and I wouldn't wish this on anybody."