Pam Finsley never planned to have an abortion. When her birth control failed in 2005, she and her partner were going to keep the baby.
But nine weeks into her pregnancy, Finsley was racing to Wheeling Hospital, bleeding so heavily she soaked through a quilt. The doctors didn’t seem too worried.
“No medication is given to me. None,” Finsley said. “I’m screaming and crying in pain, basically having labor pains, bleeding everywhere. They’re just coming in, changing pads where I’m bleeding everywhere, telling me I have to pass this baby on my own, giving me internal ultrasounds to see how much is left of this fetus.”
Finsley didn’t know it yet, but she was miscarrying — and the fetus wouldn’t pass naturally. She would spend three and a half days in and out of the Catholic hospital before doctors finally performed a medically-necessary abortion.
This minor surgery took barely over an hour, including recovery. Neither Wheeling Hospital nor its new parent company, WVU Medicine, would comment on why the hospital waited so long to operate.
Catholic hospitals have long delayed medically necessary abortions until pregnant patients are clearly on death’s doorstep — for example, already septic. But these life-threatening delays are now becoming more common in secular hospitals. Take Texas’ ban on abortions after six weeks, which includes medical exceptions: doctors have still sent home pregnant patients, rather than providing necessary care.
An overwhelming amount of research shows that stricter abortion laws make these outcomes more likely. But that’s the direction in which West Virginia appears to be going. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, officials are set to enforce an abortion statute passed in 1848, before women could vote and West Virginia was even a state.
It says anyone who causes a woman to take any substance that causes a miscarriage or abortion is guilty of a felony, punishable by three to 10 years, unless the abortion is done to save the life of the mother.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a recent memorandum that the law could criminalize people who perform abortions and people who get them.
In Finsley’s case, the hospital billed her insurance company for a “medical abortion”. She worries the experience she had nearly two decades ago will become more common as West Virginia hospitals – even secular ones – debate how to navigate a post-Roe world without risking prosecution.
“We’re going to have doctors that are afraid to do [the procedure] because of the way it shows up in insurance,” Finsley said. “They don’t want to be in the crosshairs of a lawsuit. And I really do feel like it’s going to scare doctors into not having reaction times quick enough to save lives.”
We spoke with several West Virginians who had abortions before Roe was overturned, Continuing their pregnancies posed insurmountable challenges — some of them life-threatening. They struggled to get abortions even with the protections Roe provided. Without those protections, it’s likely even more West Virginians will have similar experiences.
When Finsley, then 22, discovered she was pregnant with her fifth child, she was pro-abortion rights. Even though she hadn’t planned the pregnancy, she said it wouldn’t have mattered if that were her tenth child. She and her partner would’ve loved that baby.
When Finsley’s partner first drove her to Wheeling Hospital because she was bleeding profusely, emergency room staff didn’t seem too worried. They gave her a blood test, and a doctor told her to go home and “prepare to have her fifth child.”
But the bleeding didn’t stop. Finsley was back in the ER the next morning, speaking with a nurse who’d treated her the night before.
“They didn’t explain that you’re having a miscarriage?” the nurse asked, surprised.
Finsley said she knew deep-down that her baby wouldn’t survive, but her partner began to cry.
“He was like, ‘That’s not what they told us last night,’” Finsley said. “People generally put their trust in doctors, so he was devastated.”
The bleeding continued, and Finsley got dizzy. She turned white and passed out. Her heart rate dropped, and hospital workers screamed emergency codes.
And still, Finsley said, hospital staff told her she needed to pass the fetus naturally.
She begged for medication. Her partner tried to advocate for her. But she said hospital staff urged her to “bear through the pain” so she could avoid surgery, framing it as something scary and painful.
Finsley had never had surgery before, and she figured the hospital staff knew best. Surely, surgery was worse than this.
Twenty-four hours passed.
Finsley still hadn’t passed the fetus.
After almost three-and-a-half days, an OB/GYN came and told Finsley the fetus wouldn’t pass on its own. She needed to have a D&C, a dilation and curettage surgery. The doctor expanded her cervix and scraped her uterine lining with a spoon-shaped instrument to fully remove the fetus.
The procedure likely saved Finsley’s life and ensured that her first four children didn’t grow up without a mom. After ending things with her first partner, Finsley also had two children with another man and adopted a son.
She fears for her daughters because of West Virginia’s changing abortion laws.
“I don’t want to have to worry about them having a miscarriage and not be able to have the same medical care — which wasn’t that great to begin with,” Finsley said. “But I still had that option, [even if] they might have waited until the final hour to give me that option. I just don’t want that option to be taken away from them because we live in a Republican-led state.”
Amanda, then 33, had never been pregnant before. But she knew something was wrong when she started feeling pain in her left side, several weeks after learning she was pregnant in November 2020. (She requested we not use her last name, out of concern it would hurt her career prospects.)
Amanda worried she had an ectopic pregnancy, when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, typically in a fallopian tube. Fetuses can’t survive outside the uterus, so ectopic pregnancies are never viable.
They’re also “ticking time bombs.” If left to grow, ectopic pregnancies can suddenly rupture fallopian tubes, triggering internal bleeding, infection and death.
For almost two weeks, Amanda hit dead end after dead end, trying to find a doctor in the Morgantown area who would take her concerns seriously and terminate her pregnancy.
When she first called an OB/GYN, she was told she couldn’t be seen until she was at least eight weeks pregnant. So, she headed to the emergency room.
Amanda was in so much pain, she couldn’t stand. Hospital staff gave her an ultrasound and attributed her symptoms to a cyst that all pregnant people develop that can be painful. Then they sent her home.
Amanda’s pain got worse, and she started bleeding a few days later. The color didn’t look right to her, so she called the OB/GYN again.
“They basically told me that I was probably OK,” Amanda said. “Looking back on it, I think they were just assuming I was a nervous first-time mom. And so I wasn’t really taken seriously. I was never put on the phone with a doctor.”
Later that night, a doctor who’d seen Amanda in the ER told her via phone that she was having a miscarriage and prescribed medication to speed up the process.
The doctor told her there was no need for an ultrasound or follow-up, but Amanda still didn’t feel right a few days later. She thought she was still pregnant.
She repeatedly called the OB/GYN’s office, asking for an ultrasound, only to be denied. Again, she was never put on the phone with a doctor.
So, Amanda kept a prenatal OB/GYN appointment for a pregnancy she’d already lost. When she went to the appointment, just over a week after taking the medication, staff agreed to give her an ultrasound and run blood tests. But they acted like her request was silly, dismissively implying they would only do it to “make her feel better.”
The ultrasound revealed that Amanda’s concerns weren’t unwarranted. She did have an ectopic pregnancy, and, within two hours, she was being treated with methotrexate, a medicine frequently prescribed to cancer patients that stops cells from dividing.
Amanda could’ve had surgery, but her doctor said she’d likely have to remove her entire fallopian tube. That was problematic since the doctor also didn’t know exactly where the fetus was. Amanda could lose her tube for nothing.
She’s glad that didn’t happen, because she now has a 3-month-old daughter who came from the tube she almost removed.
But Amanda thinks more women will experience potentially fatal complications from ectopic pregnancies if states increase abortion restrictions. She cited research showing the chilling effect these restrictions have on doctors and the speed of treatment, which is especially critical for ectopic pregnancies.
And plenty of women struggled to receive speedy treatment for ectopic pregnancies even before Roe fell, as Amanda learned when she spoke publicly about her experience.
“I had women messaging me saying things like ‘I almost bled out on the bathroom floor.’ And that is not OK to me,” Amanda said. “Partners shouldn’t be walking in and finding people on the floor for something that’s totally preventable. And at that point, it’s not an option. It’s either you get your treatment or you die.”
Amanda decided to leave West Virginia when she discovered she was pregnant again, partially because of the poor care she received. She moved to a different state where she gave birth to her daughter, describing the health care team who helped her as “phenomenal.”
“I refused to go through an entire pregnancy and be ignored,” Amanda said.
When Daisy Thomas finished her junior year at Shepherd University and went home to Charleston for the summer, she discovered she was pregnant.
“I knew without a moment’s thought that I was going to terminate because I was in school, and I was really looking forward to graduating and moving out of state,” Thomas said. “And I just was not mentally, physically, emotionally in a place to have a child or or be pregnant.”
Since Thomas was in Charleston, she had easy access to the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia. Until Roe was overturned, it was the only dedicated abortion clinic in the state.
Thomas had been there frequently as a teenager because she could receive gynecological care and STD testing, even though her family didn’t have insurance.
But now, while pregnant, Thomas’ lack of insurance still created some restrictions. It was early enough to receive a medication abortion. But without insurance, Thomas’ only option was a surgical abortion, which cost about $500 out-of-pocket.
Although there’s more stigma around elective abortions, Thomas is proud of the decision she made.
“I could name at least a dozen girls from my high school that had children before the age of 18,” Thomas said. “I used to run with a really fast crowd. I saw a lot of my friends bring children into the world that they could not care for, and they actually ended up making state or national news for child abuse or neglect or endangerment. And I knew that if I had taken the other option and brought a child into this world, there’s a chance I might be one of those women. And I could never subject another human being to that.”
And if Thomas had made a different choice, she wouldn’t have the life she does today. After graduating from Shepherd with an undergraduate degree in English, she moved to Brooklyn to pursue an acting career.
Now 27 and living in Jersey City, Thomas mainly performs in plays, but she’s trying to get into film and TV. She recently starred in an off-Broadway production of “The Nod,” a dark comedy.
Thomas has also been in a committed relationship for five years. She doesn’t think she will ever have children.
“I have always imagined myself, since a very young age, having a professional creative career and that being the major focus of my life,” Thomas said. “Traveling the world and then retiring somewhere on the sea in New England with like a bunch of cats. And the love of my life, whoever that may be. I think I’ve found him now. For me, motherhood is not a cornerstone of my take on femininity.”