Leah Torres wakes up early in a modest townhome between the two looming mountain ranges that border Salt Lake City. She makes coffee with the precision you’d expect of a doctor, though for breakfast she might eat a bowl of Trix. She sits down on the couch to watch the Today show. Then she checks Twitter to see if anyone has called her a murderer overnight.
Later, at the hospital where she works, Torres will talk with teenagers about birth control, and with women about their mammograms. She’ll examine patients with high-risk pregnancies; implant IUDs; take pap smears; perform surgery. She sees patients who are uninsured, and when they can’t afford the medicines she wants to prescribe, she figures out another treatment plan. What she doesn’t do at the hospital is perform abortions. Only two clinics in Utah have found their way through the maze of restrictive laws that govern abortion care in the state—and so, to do that part of her work, Torres spends a Saturday each month at one of them, helping people end their pregnancies.
One afternoon in April, Torres came striding out of the hospital’s sliding-glass doors in her white coat, furious. After initially giving The Nation permission to film in her office, hospital administrators had revoked it the night before, at first citing patient privacy and finally admitting to Torres that they didn’t want publicity about her work as an abortion provider and reproductive-rights advocate. Torres was apologetic—and angry. She is not one for hushing up.
Although she works in a conservative state and in a political climate marked by overt hostility toward abortion providers, the 36-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist maintains an unusually public profile. On Twitter, Torres responds to anti-choice trolls with facts and links to medical research. On her blog, she answers readers’ questions, which are mostly about birth control. She writes op-eds and participates in public-policy debates. She became even more active this past spring, when Utah’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a novel law requiring doctors to give anesthesia to fetuses for abortions taking place at 20 weeks or later—though there is no scientific evidence that fetuses can feel pain so early.
We met Torres in mid-April, three weeks before the law was set to take effect. She was placing near-daily calls to the state attorney general’s office in an attempt to figure out how to comply, since there is no standard medical practice for giving painkillers to fetuses. No one, including the accountant who sponsored the legislation in the State Senate, could tell her what the law actually required. Would it be OK to give the woman an extra dose of Advil? Or would Torres have to knock her out completely with a general anesthetic, making what is generally a safe procedure more costly and dangerous?