Her Ex-Husband Is Suing a Clinic Over the Abortion She Had 4 Years Ago
Nearly 4 years after a woman ended an unwanted pregnancy with abortion pills obtained at a Phoenix clinic, she finds herself mired in an ongoing lawsuit over that decision.
Nearly four years after a woman ended an unwanted pregnancy with abortion pills obtained at a Phoenix clinic, she finds herself mired in an ongoing lawsuit over that decision.
A judge allowed the woman's ex-husband to establish an estate for the embryo, which had been aborted in its seventh week of development. The ex-husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the clinic and its doctors in 2020, alleging that physicians failed to obtain proper informed consent from the woman as required by Arizona law.
Across the U.S., people have sued for negligence in the death of a fetus or embryo in cases where a pregnant person has been killed in a car crash or a pregnancy was lost because of alleged wrongdoing by a physician. But a court action claiming the wrongful death of an aborted embryo or fetus is a more novel strategy, legal experts said.
The experts said this rare tactic could become more common, as anti-abortion groups have signaled their desire to further limit reproductive rights following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The Arizona lawsuit and others that may follow could also be an attempt to discourage and intimidate providers and harass plaintiffs' former romantic partners, experts said.
Lucinda Finley, a law professor at the University at Buffalo who specializes in tort law and reproductive rights, said the Arizona case is a "harbinger of things to come" and called it "troubling for the future."
Finley said she expects state lawmakers and anti-abortion groups to use "unprecedented strategies" to try to prevent people from traveling to obtain abortions or block them from obtaining information on where to seek one.
Perhaps the most extreme example is in Texas, where the Texas Heartbeat Act, signed into law in May 2021 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in December, allows private citizens to sue a person who performs or aids in an abortion.
"It's much bigger than these wrongful death suits," Finley said.
Civia Tamarkin, president of the National Council of Jewish Women Arizona, which advocates for reproductive rights, said the Arizona lawsuit is part of a larger agenda that anti-abortion advocates are working toward.
"It's a lawsuit that appears to be a trial balloon to see how far the attorney and the plaintiff can push the limits of the law, the limits of reason, the limits of science and medicine," Tamarkin said.
In July 2018, the ex-husband, Mario Villegas, accompanied his then-wife to three medical appointments — a consultation, the abortion and a follow-up. The woman, who ProPublica is not identifying for privacy reasons, said in a deposition in the wrongful death suit that at the time of the procedure the two were already talking about obtaining a divorce, which was finalized later that year.
"We were not happy together at all," she said.
Villegas, a former Marine from Globe, Arizona, a mining town east of Phoenix, had been married twice before and has other children. He has since moved out of state.
In a form his then-wife filled out at the clinic, she said she was seeking an abortion because she was not ready to be a parent and her relationship with Villegas was unstable, according to court records. She also checked a box affirming that "I am comfortable with my decision to terminate this pregnancy." The woman declined to speak on the record with ProPublica out of fear for her safety.
The following year, in 2019, Villegas learned about an Alabama man who hadn't wanted his ex-girlfriend to have an abortion and sued the Alabama Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville on behalf of an embryo that was aborted at six weeks.
To sue on behalf of the embryo, the would-be father, Ryan Magers, went to probate court where he asked a judge to appoint him as the personal representative of the estate. In probate court, a judge may appoint someone to represent the estate of a person who has died without a will. That representative then has the authority to distribute the estate's assets to beneficiaries.