Nine years ago, Cade DeSpain messaged a friend about a cute girl he saw on her Facebook feed.
The friend introduced him to Kailee Lingo, her sorority sister at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Kailee remembers that when she and Cade met, it was “a connection at first sight.”
A month after college graduation, Kailee and Cade married in Marble Falls, Texas. They’re both proud to be native Texans: Kailee’s family has lived there for generations, and Cade’s ancestors are among Texas’ “Old Three Hundred,” the original families that joined Stephen F. Austin to settle the area in the 1800s.
At the time, the DeSpains were both passionately anti-abortion.
“I was just your quintessential pro-life Texan,” Kailee, 29, told CNN in a recent interview.
“I was raised in central Texas by extremely Republican parents and grandparents,” Cade, 31, said. “One hundred percent pro-life.”
A year after they were married, Kailee miscarried at 16 weeks and was hospitalized for severe complications, including blood clots and infection. It was one of three miscarriages she had in the early years of marriage.
“It made me realize that pregnancy can be dangerous,” she said. “It made me think of my little sisters, and I wanted them to be able to have a choice if they ever had to go through something like that.”
Last September, when a restrictive anti-abortion law took effect in Texas, Kailee pleaded on Facebook for people to contact their elected representatives to protect abortion rights.
In November, Kailee and Cade were overjoyed to learn that she was pregnant. Full of hope, they posted ultrasound pictures and a gender reveal video of a cannon shooting out blue confetti. They named their baby boy Finley.
Then, about three months later, they learned that Finley had heart, lung, brain, kidney and genetic defects and would either be stillborn or die within minutes of birth. Carrying him to term put Kailee at high risk for severe pregnancy complications, including blood clots, preeclampsia and cancer.
Even so, they could not get an abortion in Texas and fled to New Mexico.
“I’ve never felt more betrayed by a place I was once so proud to be from,” Kailee said through tears.
“How could you be so cruel as to pass a law that you know will hurt women and that you know will cause babies to be born in pain?” she added. “How is that humane? How is that saving anybody?”
CNN emailed Texas lawmakers who authored or sponsored the state’s anti-abortion laws. None of them responded to CNN’s questions.
A grim prognosis for their baby
When Kailee and Cade found out she was pregnant, they desperately hoped for a “sticky baby” – a pregnancy that would stick – after her three miscarriages.
But after multiple ultrasounds, the doctors’ prognosis was grim: His heart, lung, kidney and brain problems were severe, and his genetic disorder, called triploidy, meant he had an extra set of chromosomes. The doctors said that either Finley would die before birth, or if he did make it to term, he would die a few minutes or at most an hour after birth.
One of their doctors told them, “Some of these things could be fixed, but all of these things together – this cannot be fixed,” Kailee remembers.
She says the doctor told them that before Texas’ six-week abortion ban went into effect in September of last year, she would have advised abortion as “the safest course for you [and] the most humane course of action for him.”
But the doctor said she could not offer them an abortion in Texas. She said the only option to get one was to travel out of state.
Risk to Kailee’s life
Staying pregnant with Finley could have put Kailee’s life in danger.
She has two blood clotting disorders, which put her at a higher risk for having dangerous blood clots during pregnancy. Plus, mothers of babies with triploidy are more likely to get preeclampsia, a potentially deadly pregnancy disorder. Also, there was an increased risk for a placental abnormality associated with cancer.
Kailee said she considered risking her own life to carry Finley to term.
“I [wanted] to say goodbye,” she said. “I [wanted] a chance to hold him.”
But then she thought about how Finley would suffer as he struggled to breathe.
“He’s going to suffocate, he’s going to die, and I’m going to watch him do it,” she said.
For Cade, there was only one option: It made no sense to him to risk his wife’s life to have a baby who was certain to die quickly.
Cade told Kailee, ” ‘I will support you whatever decision that you make, but I really don’t want to lose both of you, ’ ” Kailee remembers.
The couple opted for abortion, driving 10 hours to a clinic in New Mexico. The procedure and travel cost $3,500. They hoped their insurance would cover the procedure, but Texas law strictly limits abortion coverage, and the clinic told them their insurance company declined to pay.
The DeSpains didn’t have enough money – Kailee said she was docked pay at work because she’d had too many sick days – so Cade asked a relative he describes as “the epitome of the Trump fanboy” to give them the $3,500. The relative relented when Cade said that without the abortion, he could end up a widower at age 30.
Cade said he didn’t like asking for the money, but “my job as a husband is to protect and love my wife. If I’m not fighting to keep her here, then I failed.”
Kailee had the abortion in March, when she was 19 weeks pregnant.
‘I’m still so angry and hurt’
While legislators did not respond to CNN’s questions about Kailee’s case, the president of Texas Right to Life did.
John Seago said that “Texas law is very clear about what circumstances that an abortion could be performed” and that “what happened to [Kailee] and the response of her physicians was absolutely a misrepresentation of the law. And this should never have happened.”
But Katie Keith, director of the Health Policy and the Law Initiative at Georgetown University Law Center, said Texas’ abortion laws – the one that took effect last year and another one that went into effect last month – are not at all clear and are “designed to be purposely vague and broad.”
The more recent law, for example, says an abortion can be performed if the mother “has a life-threatening physical condition aggravated, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that places the female at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”
“They don’t spell out exactly the situations when an abortion can be provided,” Keith said.
Kailee said her doctors told her they could give her an abortion only if she were at imminent risk of dying – essentially, if she were ” ‘dying on the table.’ ”
If a physician is found in violation of the law, the punishments can be severe: heavy fines, loss of their medical license and a possible life sentence in prison.
Plus, citizens can file lawsuits against physicians they think have performed an illegal abortion, and if they win, they can get a $10,000 reward. If the citizen is wrong and the doctor wins the lawsuit, the doctor still has to pay their own legal fees, as Texas law specifically forbids doctors from recouping fees from plaintiffs.
“Facing the potential to become a felon and face life in prison for simply trying to take care of patients has been horrifying, and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t considered leaving the state,” said Dr. Leah Tatum, a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who practices in Austin, Texas, and has treated patients in similar situations to Kailee’s since the Texas anti-abortion laws passed.
The Texas law that went into effect last year barred most abortions at the onset of fetal cardiac activity, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy and before many people know they are pregnant. It was one of the earliest and most restrictive abortion laws. Laws that ban abortion or severely restrict the procedure have gone into effect in about a dozen states after the US Supreme Court ended a constitutional right to abortion on June 24.
Kailee says that the last time she saw her obstetrician, she advised her not to get pregnant in Texas.
“She said ‘this is not safe,’ ” Kailee remembers. ” She said, ‘I need you to look at me. I need you to understand that if you get pregnant in Texas and that if you have complications, that I cannot intervene until I can prove that you’re going to die.’ ”
The DeSpains say they are thinking about leaving Texas, but it would be difficult to leave their work and their families.
Kailee said they’re sharing their story in hopes of increasing awareness so “that stories like mine can change enough voters’ perspectives.”
“I’m still so angry and hurt about it that I can hardly see straight,” she wrote on Facebook the day after the abortion. “Finley and I were simply collateral damage in a much bigger picture. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the thought process of lawmakers that would rather a full-term baby suffocate to death than allow a mother to make a decision that spares her child that pain.”
CNN’s Nadia Kounang and John Bonifield contributed to this report.