Her baby was going to die. Abortion laws forced her to give birth anyway

Samantha Casiano cries while visiting the gravesite of her daughter. Hello with her daughter Camila and son Louie.

Samantha Casiano spent this month planning her daughter’s first birthday party. The 30-year-old east Texas mother of four knows how to throw a good party for her kids.

But this family get-together on Friday wasn’t a traditional party, despite Casiano purchasing a cake and balloons for the event.

Instead, Casiano’s family spent the day at the gravesite of Halo Hope Villasana, Casiano’s daughter who was born with anencephaly, a fatal condition that prevents a child’s brain and skull from forming properly.

Camila puts a candle in her late sister’s birthday cake on Friday. Hello died one year ago.

It affects about 1 in 1,000 pregnancies, most of which end in miscarriage or abortion.

But Casiano said she didn’t have the choice of an abortion.

“Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to do that because of the way the (abortion) law is written,” Casiano told CNN. Abortion in Texas is illegal in almost all cases because of a “trigger ban” that went into effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

There is an exception: the “medical emergency” statute in Texas allows for abortion if the mother has a “life-threatening” condition or is at “serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.” But these medical exemptions are rare and doctors, experts and patients — including Casiano — argue the wording in the law isn’t clear enough.

“I was lost,” Casiano said, remembering when she learned about the condition during her 20-week anatomy scan. “It was a very emotional day.”

Casiano and her family celebrate Halo’s birthday at the cemetery.

Casiano places an Easter decoration on Halo’s grave. “For me, this is celebrating the fact that she’s really free now,” she said.

After Casiano’s OB-GYN told her she wouldn’t be able to provide her with an abortion because of Texas’s restrictive abortion laws, Casiano and her husband, Luis Fernando Villasana, started looking into other options.

The closest abortion clinics were in New Mexico and Colorado, but getting there was simply financially and logistically impossible.

So, instead of being able to end her pregnancy, she spent months carrying a child she knew likely wouldn’t live more than a day.

“I’m her life support. I should be able to release my daughter,” Casiano said. “I am her mother. That’s my right.”

Halo died nearly four hours after she was born on March 29, 2023.

A plaster cast of Halo’s feet is kept on a table inside Casiano’s home.

Casiano is one of 20 women challenging Texas’ restrictive abortion laws, claiming she was denied abortion care in Texas because of a lack of clarity in the state’s ”emergency medical” exceptions in its abortion laws.

In August, a Texas district judge issued an injunction blocking Texas’s abortion bans as they applied to dangerous pregnancy complications, but an appeal from the state blocked the injunction shortly after. The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in November but hasn’t ruled on the case yet.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his office have not yet responded to a request for comment.

The case is one of many legal battles surrounding abortion since the Supreme Court overturned national abortion rights protections in June 2022.

Casiano puts shoes on her daughter Camila’s feet near their Texas home.

Camila laughs during the celebration of her sister’s life.

Casiano’s children get ready to leave the cemetery in December after the family has placed a headstone at Halo’s grave.

Now, one year after Halo’s birth and death, Casiano’s world continues to turn. Her other kids keep growing. But she’s far from feeling any closure.

“I feel like I’m going to feel this way forever,” Casiano said. “I’m scarred forever, literally.”

Danielle Villasana, a Houston-based photojournalist unrelated to the family, met Casiano while on assignment last year.

“She really pulls you in,” Villasana said about Casiano. “She’s incredibly intelligent, welcoming and friendly, despite the somber nature of why we were connecting in the first place.”

Casiano leaves Chuck E. Cheese with her family after they celebrated one of her sons’ first birthday in June.

The family sings happy birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. “I’m going to cry when (Louie) starts walking because he’s our last baby,” Casiano said.

What started as a simple portrait assignment turned into more than 10 months of documenting Casiano and her family navigating life after Halo’s death. Her photos illustrate what the family’s days look like — visiting Halo’s gravesite on Sundays, driving to Chuck E. Cheese for her son’s birthdays, drawing on the trampoline in her family’s yard — and the intimate moments in between.

“I remember when I went to Samantha’s house for the first time and saw how she had an altar at the corner of her home,” Villasana said.

It’s a collection of items thoughtfully placed on an accent table: a sonogram showing Halo’s fingers, a baptismal certificate and candle from a ceremony at the hospital, a prayer candle, prints of Halo’s hands and a plaster cast of her feet.

“Knowing what (having a child) feels like and then immediately having to lose that child after childbirth and everything you’re going through, seeing that (display) was really impactful,” Villasana said.

Camila plays next to the family’s Hello keepsakes.

Casiano keeps these physical items out not only for herself and her family to remember Hello, but to create an opportunity for others to learn about her, too. Her experience giving birth to Halo was traumatic, but she doesn’t shy away from sharing her story.

“I want people to ask questions. I want people to know about her. “I want people to be aware of the situation and why abortion is health care and why my daughter had to wait all the way until birth to be released into heaven,” Casiano said.

Following the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, nearly two dozen US states have banned or limited access to abortion. States where abortion is most limited, such as Texas, report higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, as well as greater economic insecurity.

Villasana hopes that photographing Casiano’s story puts a face to those statistics.

Casiano puts pants on Louie at home.

Camila plays in the yard.

Casiano wrote Halo’s name in chalk on the trampoline in her yard.

“As I’ve started to photograph this issue — not just Samantha’s story, but other women’s stories — I’ve been reminded that everyone’s life is so unique and different. There isn’t a cookie-cutter formula to everything, and it’s important to show the realities of these laws and what that looks like on a day-to-day basis right now,” Villasana said. “Often in the news and media, we see numbers and statistics and facts and figures, but we don’t see the humans behind those numbers.”

In December, Casiano finally received a headstone for Halo’s grave.

Casiano’s family had a small ceremony when the headstone was installed, framing the headstone with flowers and candles. Casiano’s daughter Camila placed two of her dolls on the stone.

“Seeing Camila leaving a doll for Halo, but also playing with the doll almost as if she were playing with Halo, that was really tender to see,” Villasana said.

Camila plays with a doll at her sister’s gravesite in December.

Casiano hopes that her daughter never has to go through the same pain she did.

“It’s the most traumatic thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life,” Casiano said. “God forbid, if my daughter had to go through this, I would immediately be crying and furious.”

The headstone shows two etched images: one of Halo, surrounded by angel wings, and another shortly after Halo was born, with Casiano and her husband holding her in the hospital during their first and last moments together.

“It’s not like it’s total closure, but I feel like my daughter’s free,” Casiano said. “My daughter is not imprisoned inside of my body waiting to be released. My daughter is free.”

Casiano gets ready to take balloons to the cemetery.