After graduating from a medical school in the Northeast, Caledonia Buckheit came south to Duke University Hospital to complete her obstetrics and gynecology residency. She finished last June and found work in North Carolina — ready to provide comprehensive reproductive health care to patients, including abortion.
Just weeks after finishing, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization eliminated the constitutional right to abortion that had existed for nearly half a century.
“Controlling women’s bodies has always been a topic but I didn’t really think it would get to this,” Buckheit said.
Suddenly, working in reproductive health care got a lot more complicated.
The Dobbs decision handed the authority to regulate abortion back to states and their elected officials, ushering in a seismic change in access to the procedure nationwide. Lawmakers in dozens of states — including North Carolina — pursued greater restrictions.
On top of the challenges that come with entering a new profession, Buckheit — like everyone else working in reproductive health care — has spent the past year navigating a shifting legal landscape and all the questions and unknowns that come with continuing to provide care.
It’s a dynamic that will continue to be part of the job for the foreseeable future as North Carolina’s new restrictions limiting most abortions after 12 weeks take effect July 1 and access to the abortion pill mifepristone is being contested in court.
“It’s just been really disheartening, feeling like my patients have less autonomy,” said Buckheit, a general OB-GYN working at a private practice in the Triangle.
Even for those who have been practicing for years, like OB-GYN Amy Bryant, it’s unquestionable that the past year has been the most challenging and exhausting time to be in the reproductive health care field.
Since the fall of Roe, the legal landscape has been continuously shifting. Abortion providers across the nation and in North Carolina have had to adjust their practices to stay within the bounds of the law.
“When I think back to the early days after the Dobbs decision after Roe v. Wade was overturned, I just really think about the chaos and the uncertainty and the difficulties that we confronted, like, almost instantaneously with this new law of the land,” Bryant said. “It was truly just kind of scary.”
Beverly Gray, another longtime OB-GYN who works with many high-risk and complicated pregnancies, said she was startled by how quickly some neighboring states took action to cut access to abortion. For months, North Carolina — and its 14 abortion clinics located in nine counties — became a critical abortion access point in the Southeast, providing care to an increased number of out-of-state patients.
In August, North Carolina physicians had to adjust their practices for the first time following the Dobbs decision when a federal judge reinstated North Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban, citing the disappearance of constitutional protections on the procedure. The ruling cut the window of time pregnant people had for seeking abortions in the state from fetal viability, which typically falls between 24 and 26 weeks of pregnancy.
The loss of those weeks was palpable for abortion providers like Gray who had to turn patients beyond 20 weeks away — patients she could previously care for. In her practice, she said those patients mainly consisted of people who received a diagnosis of severe birth defects.
Then it was a waiting game. Republican state lawmakers expressed their intentions to pursue greater restrictions on abortion shortly after Roe was overturned, but no one knew the speed at which they would move or what if any restrictions would entail.
The uncertainty spanned many months.
“We didn’t know when the law might change and how we were going to respond if somebody was already scheduled and ready to go and they’d come from eight hours away,” Bryant said. “We didn’t know if we would still be able to care for them or not. That was just not a good way to practice medicine.”
Ultimately, North Carolina lawmakers brushed aside medical providers’ pleas against adding more restrictions this past May. They passed a ban on the procedure after 12 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest, fetal problems and risk to the mother in May, and overrode a subsequent veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.
Next month, once again, a change in law will necessitate people who work in reproductive health care to alter their practices to conform to new constraints on their work.
Even a month after Senate Bill 20 was passed and the veto overridden, there are still more changes, as just this past week, the state Senate added an amendment to a separate bill that clarifies some of the timing of restrictions.
Gray said it’s not normal for physicians to have to significantly rethink how they practice, especially so many times over the span of one year. She emphasized that practice changes are being dictated by an arbitrary change in law, not as a result of improved medical guidelines.
“It’s completely disruptive to our practice, to our lives, to our day-to-day,” Gray said.
In addition 'to Gray maintaining a busy schedule providing patient care, the year has been full of trips to the legislature to voice opposition to increased abortion restrictions, conversations with lawyers to understand new rules, internal meetings to adjust practices to be legally compliant and media interviews explaining what changes mean to the public.
She’s even filed a federal lawsuit along with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic challenging several provisions of the new state law banning most abortions after 12 weeks, arguing they are unclear or unconstitutional.
It’s a heavy load to carry — added stresses and tasks that Gray said most other physicians don’t have to experience.
“It’s really just exhausting on so many levels because I’m doing all that and at the same time still providing care, still doing all the other work that’s required as a physician and now it’s just all these extra layers,” Gray said.
When Gray decided to go to medical school, she never thought her role as an OB-GYN would involve so much advocacy and parsing new laws, but that’s what it’s turned into in the post-Dobbs period.
Bryant agrees that the role has changed significantly over the past year.
“I have spent so much time poring over the legal issues related to my work,” she said. “It is not what I would like to be doing.
“I think that pregnancy is just far too complicated to be legislated. And when nonmedical professionals start to try to legislate it, it becomes even more complicated to really understand the nuance — to be able to address the nuances in the individual situations that arise when a person becomes pregnant. This is not in any way what I expected my life to become.”
Buckheit, the new OB-GYN, didn’t expect lawmakers would be dictating how she can do her job, either. And she believes they may have written the law differently if they interacted with pregnant patients on a daily basis.
“I truly feel that if lawmakers spent a week at Planned Parenthood or spent a week in a high-risk OB-GYN office, they would have a really different take,” Buckheit said. “There’s so much complexity and nuance to what we see and what patients and families are going through.”
For example, she’s had to read the state-mandated counseling script 72 hours before an abortion to patients whose babies have serious fetal anomalies.
“It’s like, adoption is an option, parenting is an option,” Buckheit said. “I’m saying this to someone whose baby doesn’t have a brain. It’s just so cruel.”
The work, particularly in an environment of tightening restrictions, also takes an emotional toll.
“Living in this world now where basic health protections are no longer in place is very difficult,” Bryant said. “Obviously, for patients and also for providers who experience a whole lot of moral distress, knowing that you can care for someone yet not be able to because lawyers, legislators, the courts are telling you that you can’t. It’s a really uncomfortable and distressing place to be.”
Gray and Bryant can’t help but think about the patients they’ve cared for recently and consider whether the same options will be available after July 1.
It’s a devastating reality, Gray said, to know she still has the same skills to help patients in an array of situations but her hands will soon be tied by new rules where she will have to turn some people away she could previously care for.
“I think every single patient that we’re able to care for is meaningful and important, and we’re able to help change the trajectory of people’s lives,” Gray said. “I worry about all of those people that didn’t make the exceptions (to the new rules) but still have really important things that are happening in their lives and the lack of compassion for the people that didn’t make these arbitrary exceptions. It’s heartbreaking.”
Despite the more burdensome and taxing legal landscape, those providing reproductive health care remain committed to providing as much access as possible. The patients are the motivation.
“I feel this immense responsibility to get it right and to still be able to provide care for people,” Gray said. “There’s a huge stress and responsibility.”
North Carolina Health News is an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.