A couple who traveled more than 700 miles to get an abortion, which was ultimately unsuccessful, is suing Planned Parenthood for the cost of raising their now 2-year-old son. Citing medical negligence, breach of contract and other claims, the couple is requesting more than $750,000 for “the cost of raising an unplanned additional child.”
According to the suit, filed in New Mexico district court last week, Bianca Coons and Cristobal Ruiz were living in “extreme poverty” in February 2016, when they realized they were pregnant with a third child. Fearing that they could not afford another addition to their family, they decided to travel from their home in Idaho to a clinic in New Mexico to obtain an abortion.
The couple’s lawyer claims they traveled to New Mexico because the mandated waiting period in their home state would have “result[ed] in the baby being much more advanced in development” at the time of the procedure. The family says they used all of their remaining resources to pay for the trip and the $400 procedure.
At the Planned Parenthood of Albuquerque, the suit claims, providers prescribed a two-pill procedure commonly known as a medication abortion, instructing Coons to take one pill in the clinic and one 24 hours later. But by the time the couple returned to Boise the next day, Coons’ lawyer says she was suffering from severe nausea and dizziness.
The couple checked into a local emergency room that day, where doctors informed Coons the fetus was perfectly healthy. According to the suit, providers at the New Mexico Planned Parenthood clinic instructed Coons to take the second pill anyway, which she did. Subsequent bloodwork, however, confirmed the pregnancy was still viable.
The bulk of Coons’ claims revolves around what she says happened next: Planned Parenthood employees allegedly told her she could return to New Mexico to have a second procedure free of charge, or pay to have the procedure in Idaho—a result of the company’s federated structure, in which each regional office operates as a separate business.
The suit claims Coons had repeatedly told providers at Planned Parenthood of Albuquerque that she was only in New Mexico for the day. At no time, she claims, did the providers make it clear that she would have to pay for follow-up services in her home state. The couple, the lawsuit claims, was “deceived into thinking that they could come to New Mexico and initiate the [medication abortion] and then return to Idaho without losing access to ‘Planned Parenthood Services.’”
By the time Coons learned she was still pregnant, the suit claims, she was nine weeks into her pregnancy and both unwilling and financially unable to end the pregnancy. Instead, she gave birth in August 2016—one month early—to a “jaundiced and ill male child.”
The couple is now suing for $765,000 for the cost of raising “an additional unplanned child,” as well as damages for negligence, breach of contract and emotional distress, among others.
“The defendant’s failure to properly supervise and administer the abortion service directly resulted in the failure of the pregnancy termination which resulted in injury to plaintiffs’ interests in family planning and their interests in financial planning for the future of their family,” the lawsuit says.
Planned Parenthood declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality and the pending litigation.
The suit, first reported by the Albuquerque Journal, illustrates some of the main roadblocks to getting timely, effective abortions: Three-quarters of abortion patients are poor or low-income, like Coons and her partner, and most pay out of pocket because of insurance restrictions. Restrictive state laws also play a role by forcing patients to travel farther or wait longer to obtain an abortion—an impossibility for some working families.
But some experts find the Coons case odd. Elizabeth Nash, a state policy expert for the Guttmacher Institute, noted that Idaho’s waiting period requirement is only 24 hours—hardly enough time for a fetus to become “much more advanced in development,” as the lawsuit claims. She also noted that Coons was only six weeks pregnant at the time, when a medication abortion can be performed at up to 10 weeks. The couple’s claim that the waiting period precluded them from accessing medication abortion in Idaho, Nash said, is “curious.”
Furthermore, she added, it seemed strange that a couple in Boise rushing to get an abortion would travel 700 miles to Albuquerque, when other, closer states offer much the same services.
“Just based on geography, you could imagine that a person wouldn't go to New Mexico for a medication abortion,” she said. “You could go to Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Montana... Just looking at it on the face of it, it seems that there are other facilities that would be closer.”
The suit also puts the couple in the uncomfortable place of suing over the birth of their own son—or as one hyperbolic Christian Post article put it, suing Planned Parenthood “because the abortion pill did not kill their son.” The religious right quickly weaponized the story, with Lifesite News declaring that Planned Parenthood was “getting a taste of its own deadly medicine.”
But Lucinda Finley, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, said such suits are not uncommon. Couples have been known to sue for prenatal malpractice resulting in birth defects, or for improperly performed sterilizations that result in the birth of a child. Other suits, known as “wrongful birth” claims, arise when doctors fail to adequately warn pregnant patients about the risk of passing on congenital defects to their children.
There is also some precedent to suing over failed abortions. In 2007, a Boston woman filed suit against Planned Parenthood, claiming the clinic failed to perform the procedure properly and her primary care physician failed to detect that she was still pregnant. The case dragged on until 2011, but appears to have been settled out of court. An Ohio woman filed a similar suit against an independent clinic in 2012, but dropped the suit the next year. It is unclear if a settlement was reached.
Finley said these suits are ultimately not about challenging abortion rights, but about holding them to the same standard as any other medical procedure.
“People who choose abortion as a response to an unwanted pregnancy have every bit as much right to get appropriate medical care as someone who chooses carrying the pregnancy to term,” she said.
“Abortion is a medical service and people have a right to get it with informed consent and with medical care that meets the professional standard of care. And in that regard, it’s no different from any other medical service.”