Reporting the Horrors of Post-“Roe” America: An Interview With Shefali Luthra

Tiffany was 16 and wanted an abortion, but she lived in Texas in 2022, and the state’s six-week ban and parental consent requirement were too much for her to overcome. She fell into a depression severe enough that she was hospitalized, then developed complications that led to a harrowing delivery. At 17, against her wishes, she became a mom. “As much as I love this baby, I would wish this on absolutely no one,” Tiffany told Shefali Luthra, author of Undue Burden (Doubleday). “I still ideally would have had that abortion.” In this powerful new book, Luthra, a reporter for The 19th, chronicles heartbreaking stories like Tiffany’s while dispelling the myth that any of us are truly safe from the impact of Dobbs.

—Amy Littlefield

Amy Littlefield: I want to ask about the people most impacted by these bans because that’s the heart of your book. Talk about Angela, a 21-year-old Latina mother from San Antonio who traveled hundreds of miles to get an abortion in another state.

Shefali Luthra: Most people who get abortions are in their 20s. They are usually mothers already. They are usually women of color. They are usually getting an abortion for the same reason Angela sought an abortion, which was that she could not afford another child, and she wanted to be a present and good mom to the son she had. For me, telling her story allows us to recenter and reconsider who we think about when we think about abortion bans, because we hear so often about these very dramatic stories of children who are sexually assaulted [and] people who are about to die from their wanted pregnancies. Those are tremendously important stories to tell, but we also need to understand the broader reality of who is affected and why that is also very important. Angela’s life would not end, literally, without an abortion, but her sense of possibility and the life that she knew would be over, and that matters too. We need to be able to talk about this as something that is not only lifesaving, but also life-affirming, and a vehicle for gender equality.

AL: Angela is sort of the prototypical abortion patient—the person we never talk about who is also the most common.

SL: That’s exactly right.

AL: Talk about Darlene’s story. She discovered she was pregnant right after undergoing fibroid surgery. Doctors in Texas warned her that her uterus might literally explode from the pregnancy, which she wanted to keep, but they were afraid to treat her because of the state’s anti-abortion laws. It wasn’t until she traveled to California that doctors did the requisite testing and reassured her she likely could continue the pregnancy. It’s such a reflection of how abortion bans inhibit all ob-gyn care.

SL: No one’s going to do tests to show whether this [pregnancy] is safe or not if there’s no option for termination. And it was so, so moving to me that Darlene went to a place that was supposed to provide abortions and they were not there trying to convince her one way or another. They wanted to give her all the information so that she could decide for herself what was best. It helps sort of dismantle this anti-abortion talking point that we often hear, which is that the clinics are just out there trying to give as many abortions as possible.

AL: I want to ask about Jasper, a trans man in Florida who was up against the law that, at the time, banned abortion at 15 weeks—now it’s six weeks. What stood out to me was the pressure he felt to decide before he ran out of time.

SL: The first time I spoke with Jasper he was like, “Are you sure you want me in the book? Maybe you want only women.” I was like, “No, your story is really important.” I think the fact he even asked that question speaks to how inaccurate and non-inclusive a lot of the framing has been around abortion. Something can be the product of misogyny and amplify gender inequality and disproportionately affect women and we can understand that it doesn’t only impact women. I love that you zeroed in on the time part. He knew intellectually that he needed to get an abortion. This was very obviously the right thing for him to do; he knew he didn’t want to be a parent; he was still in college; he was working part-time. It was something he had talked about before with his partner. But because he didn’t have time to sit with his decision and really process it, he had to make up for that time afterward and he really struggled after that abortion.

AL: I want to ask about the ripple effect of abortion bans. You write about a clinic in Colorado that had to scale back primary care services to deal with an influx of abortion patients to the state. It might surprise people to learn that a primary care patient in an abortion-friendly state could be impacted by abortion bans elsewhere.

SL: I live in Washington, DC. Because of where I live, I would often hear from people [who felt very insulated from the impact of abortion bans]. I knew this book had to challenge that. If we’ve already had a shortage of affordable quality care, what does it mean when the system sees this tremendous burden placed upon it? There are health centers that cannot provide as much primary care because they are seeing far more abortion patients. I was really struck by the clinic in Kansas that stopped providing gender-affirming care not because it was illegal but because they didn’t have the capacity to do anything but abortions.

AL: What gaps do you hope this book fills, especially in an election year?

SL: I want people to read this book and understand who are the people affected by abortion bans, to think more broadly than the narratives we have put in place—to understand that abortion bans have had both universal and unequal impact. This is a public health crisis with multiple ramifications that will at some point affect you or someone you care about it.