06.21.22

Seven members of Congress, seven personal stories of abortion as Roe v. Wade hangs in balance

WASHINGTON – Seven lawmakers make up a unique caucus on Capitol Hill: those who have shared publicly that they or their partner have had an abortion and are now fighting an uphill battle to protect the right to choose in their roles as members of Congress.

The seven have different stories but share commonalities: All are Democrats, all are parents and all are furious about the prospect that the Supreme Court will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

"The (leaked draft) opinion (overturning Roe) is so misogynistic that I can't even begin to even put into words how vile I think the decision is," said one of the seven, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who was the first sitting member to share her story in 2011.

Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Barbara Lee of California shared their abortion stories last September at a House Oversight Committee hearing on abortion rights. After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters – the only man among the group –revealed that his ex-wife had an abortion.

Since the Supreme Court's draft ruling leaked May 2, Rep. Marie Newman of Illinois and Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin also shared their stories publicly for the first time.

Both Lee and Moore had their abortions before Roe was decided in 1973.

In separate interviews with USA TODAY, all of the lawmakers said they were reluctant to share their trauma and intimate stories with the public but felt it necessary to do so given the looming anticipated reversal of abortion rights. USA TODAY is the first news organization to conduct interviews with all seven about their abortions since the draft ruling leaked.

"I feel like it's important for people to know I'm there with them and I'm gonna do everything I can do to help them once they make their own personal decision," said Lee. "So as hard as it is for me still, I hope it's helping other people."

Missouri Rep. Cori Bush

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal

California Rep. Barbara Lee

Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore

Illinois Rep. Marie Newman

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters

California Rep. Jackie Speier

Rep. Cori Bush, 45, was raped and became pregnant at age 17.

"I remember my menstrual cycle was really regular to the day and being late, and after a couple of days just wondering what was going on and then after several more days I realized that maybe I should take a test," Bush said. "I just did it because that's just what I thought that you do, but I never thought it would come back positive."

When it came back positive, she realized she must have become pregnant after being sexually assaulted on a recent church trip.

"I had not thought about that moment – what happened – since it happened," she said. "I was ashamed of that moment, I just still didn't understand what happened, what I did wrong.

"All I did was had a conversation with someone that I thought was cute. We were in a hotel and he asked me to come to my room, which wasn't something that was strange because it was a youth conference and we were always in each other's rooms. ... But when he did finally show up in my room, he didn't have any conversation for me, he just ended up on top of me pulling off my clothes," she said. "I just was replaying that as I was thinking, like what am I going to do with a child?"

Bush initially didn't tell anyone about the pregnancy, hoping that somehow it wasn't real. She eventually called a few friends, and the would-be father, but he wouldn't talk to her.

"I didn't know how to go to my parents and tell them this is what was going on, but I knew that they were already struggling trying to figure out how to pay for my college," Bush said.

So she went to the Yellow Pages and found the name of a clinic she had learned about from her friends to make an appointment, which she said was as simple as making her appointment for the physical she needed to play volleyball.

"I couldn't believe it. I just remember when I hung the phone up I was like, there has to be more to this, they're going to make me bring my parents, or I'm going to get there and I'm not going to be able to get this done. But that was it," she said. She was comforted by the promise that she would get to speak to a counselor at the clinic.

Once there, Bush questioned if she should stay for her appointment after hearing the staff criticize a 13-year-old Black girl in the waiting room, insinuating that the girl was promiscuous and wouldn't accomplish anything in life. "If they feel like this about her, what are they saying about me?" Bush thought.

During her counseling session, she expected offers of help but instead was just told she was doing something wrong so the baby was underdeveloped. The counselor "told me that I was just going to be on welfare and food stamps and that it was best for me to just abort the child," Bush said. "There was no conversation about adoption, or whatever, any options other than 'you need to have this abortion today.' "

It was not the only time Bush experienced discrimination while seeking medical care. Later, while pregnant with her second child, Bush recalled a doctor telling her, "Just go home and let it abort. You people get pregnant all the time, you can get pregnant again."

Bush is no stranger to sharing her personal life in order to try to push policy change after leading the fight to extend the eviction moratorium.

"It is tough reliving some of the most traumatic moments I've experienced in my life, and not only reliving them, but speaking to them before the public and then knowing that opens the door very, very wide for scrutiny and criticism," she said. "We should not have to share our trauma or go into places of trauma to be able to make change in our world."

Still, Bush said while tearing up, "I am a true believer that if you can, be what you needed. If you're in a position to do that, be what you needed in the moment that you needed."

For her, the fight to preserve abortion access is especially urgent because Missouri has a looming trigger ban that will take immediate effect if Roe is overturned. She fears what will happen to women like her who don't have the resources to go out of state to access an abortion, especially women of color.

"It took me a full two weeks' paycheck to be able to pay for that abortion," she said. "I think about who will be left behind, who will be left out. This is all about control. And I won't just sit back quietly."

What is a trigger ban? If Roe v. Wade is overturned, here's how abortion laws in each state will stand

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, 56, was living in India the first time she got pregnant.

"I had a complete intention to come back and have a very natural home birth. But that was not to be," Jayapal said. She recalled her doctor telling her there was a chance she would die during the pregnancy due to complications.

"My daughter was born 1 pound, 14 ounces. She was 26½ weeks at the time; she was literally the size of a small squash, she fit into the palm of my hand," Jayapal said. "She had to have multiple blood transfusions, none of her organs were developed, so she had to be fed through a tube and a little dropper, and she stopped breathing multiple times. She was in the NICU for several months.

"It's very unusual to have a child of that birth weight and that gestational age be able to survive. For the first month or so we had no idea if she would actually live," she said.

Upon returning to the U.S. after giving birth, Jayapal recalled being extremely isolated after being outside the country for two years. She suffered from postpartum depression and wondered if her child would survive.

She said she even contemplated suicide at one point.

"It was only when I really got to a place where I actually got up on a window ledge that I realized I needed care and was struggling to go see a therapist and my postpartum depression issues were diagnosed," she said.

Given her health history, Jayapal took precautions to not become pregnant again after getting a divorce and meeting her now-husband. Despite her best efforts, she did.

"I would have loved to have more children. But I knew that there was no way I could do it," she said. After consulting with her doctor, Jayapal decided to have an abortion.

"I realized I had to take care of my daughter and I had to take care of myself and I was not ready to try to have another birth. I just think it would have been a terrible situation for everybody, including my child."

She spoke to Planned Parenthood and got a referral from her doctor.

"I did not have the concerns of not being able to afford the abortion as so many low-income women do, and I got excellent service. I had a phenomenal doctor that I'm still in touch with today," Jayapal said. "I had somebody to drive me there and somebody to hold me afterwards and somebody to drive me home and I had no protesters trying to argue that this was not my decision to make."

Jayapal first shared her abortion story publicly in an op-ed in the New York Times. She hadn't discussed her abortion with anyone at that point for well over a decade and hadn't even told her mother or daughter.

Sharing her story, she said, "is a responsibility and yes, a burden of sorts, but I also think it is a liberating thing to be able to utilize a story like this – as painful as it might be – for good, for understanding, for moving the country forward."

Rep. Barbara Lee, 75, remembers feeling "very afraid" when she realized she missed a period at age 15. She was attending San Fernando High School in California, where she had worked with the local NAACP to integrate the cheerleading squad.

Upon learning of her pregnancy, Lee decided to have an abortion.

"It was a personal decision that my mother and I made together," she recalled.

"My mother was always a can-do kind of woman. It's like, OK, let's see what the options are, let's talk about it. And that's what we did," she said. "I didn't want her to worry about me and I knew she would, and it was really hard for me to tell her how afraid I was. I didn't tell her, but she knew."

Lee's mother called a friend in El Paso, Texas – where Lee was born and raised before moving to California – who said she knew a doctor right across the border in Juarez, Mexico, who had a reputation for providing safe abortions.

The flight to El Paso was Lee's first time on an airplane.

She described her emotions on the plane as "fear; fear of the unknown; worry."

"I think that the largest or most prevalent cause of death was septic abortions, and so I knew that," she said. "I was always very afraid but I tried to hold my head up. I was thinking how dangerous the procedure would be, but also I was praying."

Lee also worried about getting arrested.

"I knew that they were illegal and I was worried too that I might get caught," she reflected. "I was really in a lot of ways worried that someone was going to catch me and then put me in jail."

Lee says her abortion was literally in a back alley. Her mother's friend drove her late at night to a small clinic that Lee remembers as clean and professional but dimly lit so that the police wouldn't notice.

"I felt comfortable once I got in there. Even though I was still afraid, it wasn't like a makeshift clinic," she said. After the procedure, Lee said, she felt relieved but was worried someone would find out – not just because of the stigma, but because abortion was illegal.

"All those thoughts went through my mind, hoping that nobody found out and hoping that I didn't get sick."

"There's so many who don't know a world without Roe. Well, let me tell you, you're gonna learn what that means in terms of real freedom and real bodily autonomy and real reproductive freedom and justice if Roe is overturned," she warned.

She expressed concern for the particular impact on Black and brown women if the draft decision holds.

"When you look at Black women, unfortunately, disproportionate numbers of Black women live below the poverty line. They're in economic distress, they're living on the edge," she said. "The end of bodily autonomy, Black women are going to be disproportionately impacted by this."

Lee told USA TODAY she was reluctant to share her story because "I want my personal life personal," but she did so because of what is at stake now.

"It's important, I think, as hard as it is for me and many others, that people know that you're not alone, that there are people who've been elected to public office who have had the same experiences.

"Once I shared the story, so many men and women on the floor of Congress came up and whispered to me they had a similar experience or their girlfriend or their wives. People everywhere I go come up and whisper to me. I'm glad they're whispering because they know it's still their private business. And I say, you'll never hear it from me," she said. "It's been empowering, I won't even say for me, but for other people."

Rep. Gwen Moore, 71, describes reading the leaked Supreme Court draft decision as a "gut punch." She had an abortion and later worked as a counselor at an abortion clinic.

Moore was 12 the first time she learned about abortions. She recalled hearing her mother talking to a friend about a fellow parishioner with a health condition who was pregnant with her 11th or 12th child and had been offered a "therapeutic abortion." The woman did not have an abortion and gave birth to a baby girl, only to die weeks later.

"I remember looking at her in the casket ... a beautiful corpse laying there, perfect makeup, hair. She looked gorgeous to me. And she looked really really young," Moore said. "And I asked myself, was this God's will?"

The memory of the woman stuck with Moore, who became pregnant on her eighteenth birthday. "I had not planned to have sex at all and I was not prepared whatsoever to have sex. I guess what I learned was that getting pregnant was kind of easier than almost anything I've ever done," she said.

At the time, she didn't even contemplate an abortion.

"I would say that I (didn't have) any 'options' or 'choices.' I didn't know how to get an abortion or whatever," Moore said. On New Year's Day 1970, she went into labor with her daughter.

"I had no phone. I had no cab fare. I had no money and I didn't have then a dime to use the telephone booth," she said. "I had no car, I had no driver's license. The child's father was not attentive to me at all."

So Moore waited for her neighbors to return home from New Year's celebrations and then used their phone to call an ambulance. "My first Lifeline is Medicaid," she noted. "And I say this because when I hear people opine and weigh in about, you know, 'people who are poor are just predators and they're takers,' I think about my situation."

Moore said she was traumatized at the hospital by the experience of giving birth.

"I really felt like I had been gang raped when they let every single medical student that was anywhere around come in and shove their arm into my vagina to feel the baby," Moore said. "It was just like a gang of white men ... I was just an 18-year-old Black woman."

"I never had a child in a hospital ever again," she said.

When Moore became pregnant again a year later, she immediately knew she wanted an abortion.

"Within that first year, I was at war. I had lost opportunities," Moore said. She had been accepted to an Ivy League university but because she was a single mother, she stayed local and went to Marquette University in Milwaukee instead. The school fought with the state to safeguard her welfare benefits, and her sister got a foster care license so she could take care of Moore's child.

"I was so blessed to have had people who wanted to see me succeed," she said. "I really got lucky, but I just knew I couldn't depend on that kind of luck to continue."

So Moore went to Planned Parenthood, which connected her to a doctor in Madison who connected her with a group called the Women's Fund.

"I didn't want to try to harm myself. But I can say that I might have been vulnerable because that was how desperate I was not to be pregnant," she said. "Thank God I found this network instead of some home remedy."

The organization flew her to New York City for the procedure. She was in and out, not gone long enough for anyone at home to notice.

"I didn't even have money to get to the airport, much less to fly round-trip to New York. I had never been to New York before. It was a frightening experience for me. I had never seen that many people, human beings in one place at the same time. And I felt so absolutely, totally and completely alone," she said.

She recalled feeling relieved on the journey back to Milwaukee.

"I had absolutely no complications physically, mentally or any other thing," she said. "It was so clear that this was the right thing for me to do."

She had her next child eight years later.

"That was a lot of time for me to kind of get myself together and figure out some career prospects and to really do the rough work of trying to parent the one child I had, because it just was not a cakewalk for me, and it's definitely not a cakewalk for her," she said.

Moore said she didn't realize she was making news when she mentioned having an abortion on local television in the wake of the leaked decision until her son pointed out it was new information.

"I didn't feel compelled to share it with anyone, I didn't feel like it was that compelling of a story in my 71 years of life, it's just one story," she said. "I'm not ashamed of this story."

But as people discussed the disproportionate impact overturning Roe would have on low income women and women of color, Moore said: "I looked at myself and said: 'yep, I was that person, that person they're talking about. Let me share that.'"

"I shared my story because I saw myself standing in the shoes of that woman who was now going to have her fourth child just simply because she just couldn't put together the money ... abortions will always be available to people with money."

Rep. Marie Newman, 58, defeated one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in a 2020 primary to win her seat but did not share her story until after the decision draft leaked last month.

"I went on to have a beautiful, wonderful family. I met the love of my life and I have two amazing kids, because I had quality care," Newman said. "I was super lucky. But what about all of these women, young women coming up? They won't be lucky and that will be horrifying and scary and we're going to lose women. Women will die."

Newman was 19 when she had an abortion. When she found out she was pregnant, she said she "immediately started crying."

"I don't have the emotional ability, the financial ability, the time or the wherewithal to take on something as important as being a parent, right? And it was just a huge weight on my shoulders," she recalled.

"At the time I was scrubbing tables and floors to get through college, had two jobs, an internship, and had a full 18-hour load in college, so I just couldn't imagine," Newman said. "How will I raise this child, and how will I carry a child for nine months? How will I pay for its delivery? How will I pay for its upbringing? How will this child be brought up given that I am a less than optimal parent at this point my life now?"

She made a pro and con list to help make her decision. "I still once in a while reflect back on that. It was one of the most difficult times of my life."

"I remember that the nurses were so kind to me, and they literally took me through the baby steps of it and then afterward were so reassuring. I talked to a counselor before and after. And they said: 'I think you made the right decision for you,'" Newman said. "'She's like, 'you have to own your own body.' And it was the first time someone kind of gave me permission to be OK with making my decisions because you know, at 19, any decision is tough because you're not used to making decisions for yourself."

Newman kept her pregnancy and decision secret until she was around 40 years old, when she told her now-husband.

"The shame of it was so deep," she said.

"You buy into things when you have a specific type of upbringing in a deeply Catholic household, a deeply Republican household – that you don't have agency over your body, that you should not be able to make bodily decisions for yourself," she said. "I bought into that, even though I had become very liberal in college."

"In the Catholic religion when you feel as though you've sinned, you ask for absolution, and so about a month after I was cared for, I went to a Catholic priest and received absolution and that was very healing to me," she said.

"The one misstep I may have made is that if I had talked about my abortion sooner, I probably would have stopped shaming myself, for decades, literally."

Since sharing her story publicly, Newman said that the greatest compliment has been calls from anti-abortion people who say that they understand her perspective more now, even if they don't agree.

"If nothing else matters, and we did that – oh, gosh. Mission accomplished."

Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, 63, is the only man in either chamber to share a personal story of abortion. His ex-wife had one while they were expecting their second child, after a complication-free first pregnancy.

"The sorrow, the despair of that hit you just in an overwhelming way," he said of the realization that the abortion was medically inevitable and necessary.

"Towards the end of the fourth month, really kind of surprisingly, my ex-wife experienced the water breaking and realized that something was really wrong," Peters said. She went to her doctor, who told her the lack of amniotic fluid was "catastrophic."

"There's no way that this baby could ever come to term. The fetus isn't going to be able to survive. There's no longer the cushion there to protect the baby," Peters recalled the doctor explaining. "It was clear that the baby was just gonna slowly die ... In fact, I remember him talking about things in fairly graphic terms, that the limb of the baby could be ripped off."

Peters said the doctor shared that his ex-wife could become infected and there could be serious medical repercussions, but "that he still detected a faint heartbeat from the baby."

"His advice at that point was basically just to go home and over the night she would have a miscarriage," Peters said. "It was a very horrible night, very anxious night. A lot of emotion, a lot of sadness. The next morning, when we woke up, the miscarriage did not occur."

They returned to the doctor, who was surprised but still detected a faint heartbeat. The doctor informed Peters that he could not perform an abortion because of the heartbeat and recommended they return home again to continue to wait for a miscarriage.

"This anguish, this horror that we were living continued as we went back and the same thing happened over that night and still no miscarriage," he said. They returned to the doctor again, who reiterated that the baby could not survive and said he would petition the hospital board to be able to perform an abortion despite the faint heartbeat.

"I'll never forget that answering machine," Peters recalled. The doctor informed them that the board rejected the petition for an exemption and told them the decision was effectively based on politics, not medicine or science. He urged them to find another doctor who could offer the procedure quickly, or else there would be serious health consequences that could potentially threaten the mother's life.

Luckily, said Peters, they had a friend who was an administrator at a different hospital who was able to get them in to see an OBGYN.

"That doctor examined her and said, 'I have to do this procedure immediately. This is starting to get an infection and if I don't do it soon, you will definitely lose your uterus. And if they're delayed much longer, you could see your life would be in jeopardy.' And so the procedure went forward, but it was just a horrific situation to be in," he said.

"Fortunately Roe vs. Wade was in place. It's fortunate that in Michigan, these kinds of procedures are legal," Peters said. "But if those laws were not in place, this would have been a very bad ending."

"It was a horrible situation and to watch her go through that was terrible. But it still impacts men as well, impacts families, impacts everyone," Peters said.

Peters and his ex hadn't talked about the abortion in decades before deciding to go public. "It's intensely personal. It's not easy to share. And it's quite frankly, it's something we don't like to think about a lot because it's very painful still. The pain doesn't go away."

California Rep. Jackie Speier

Rep. Jackie Speier, 72, was the first sitting lawmaker to share her story, rising on the House floor in 2011 to tell the tale during a debate over federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

"I was already a mother. We very much wanted to have this second child," Speier said. She went on a jog and felt uncomfortable after, so went to see the doctor. "They determined that the fetus had dropped through the cervix and into the vagina, and they put me in a bed with my head tilted to the floor, my legs up, with the hope that the fetus would return to the uterus. I was that way for about 24 hours, and that didn't happen."

At that point, Speier was 17 weeks pregnant and decided with her husband and doctor to terminate the pregnancy.

"This was a baby that we desperately wanted to come into the world. It was not meant to be. And so the decision was made. I grieved about it, as I think every woman does when she has an abortion. And it was a very personal and profound experience that has been with me my whole life," she said.

She did not plan to share the story in advance. "A colleague on the Republican side was reading from a book in which he said that in these second trimester abortions, the fetus – they actually saw off the legs of the babies, and I got sick to my stomach," Speier recalled.

"I stood up and said to my colleague: 'How dare you? How dare you speak about something you know nothing about? I am a woman that has endured that procedure and it's not done with any degree of joy. It's done out of pain and grief. To somehow suggest that this is done cavalierly is preposterous.'"

Speier recalls trembling as she walked back to her seat from the microphone, only to be comforted by the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

"He had tears in his eyes and said that it was one of the most powerful speeches he had ever heard, and he proceeded to tell me about his aunt. He was a young boy at the time, and he remembers his aunt coming down the steps at his house in a blood stained night gown and never returning," she said. "We're not going to let this happen in this country again."

It's not the only time Speier has shared her personal trauma as a legislator. She was elected after serving as an aide to the late Rep. Leo Ryan, who was killed during the  Jonestown massacre in 1978. Speier, who was with Ryan at the time, survived after being shot five times. Later, she helped spearhead the #MeToo movement on the Hill by sharing the sexual harassment and assault she experienced as a staffer.

"You don't do it by design. I think more than anything, we all bring our personal experiences to our work, and it informs our decision making," she said.

"I think that these stories actually help people understand that we're not talking about words on a piece of paper. ... There needs to be a greater understanding among all of us about our personal experiences, and I think it would help us do our jobs better if we just listened to each other."


By:  Dylan Wells
Source: USA Today