Five members of Congress share their personal abortion stories

Almost 50 years have passed since the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade established the constitutional right to have an abortion in the United States. Today, millions of Americans face a potential future without this protection. It was reported on Monday that the Supreme Court has already voted privately to strike down Deer, by a leak of the initial draft majority opinion obtained by Politics. If the decision is released as is, most likely this summer, about half of the states in the country are on the verge of banning abortion. In recent years, states have passed “trigger laws,” which make abortion illegal as soon as the court authorizes it. Some states have also voted in favor of a record number of other restrictions, including imposing waiting periods on patients, imposing costly and medically unnecessary requirements on clinics to close them, and the politics of the day among Republicans: Ban abortions at various pre-viability times—as early as six weeks, before most people even know they’re pregnant.

Abortion remains legal, for now. But as we prepare for a nation without deer, ELLE brought together five members of Congress who have been open about their personal experiences with abortion: Representatives Cori Bush, Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier, and Senator Gary Peters. Members met at the United States Capitol in February to discuss how to protect access to abortion. Of the current 536 members of Congress, these five are the only ones to have recorded their abortion histories; there are likely many more, given that recent estimates have revealed that nearly one in four women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime.

These members chose to participate in ELLE’s landmark roundtable because they know the power that comes from personalizing politics. By sharing their own stories, they give voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who, each year, for hundreds of thousands of reasons, choose to have an abortion. Aborted patients are your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues and, yes, even your elected officials. Below, in their own words, they explain why abortion rights are so essential.


Rep. Cori Bush


CELESTIAL SLOMAN

I was 17 when I got pregnant. We moved on from just chatting, and the next thing I knew he was on top of me. I literally had no idea what was going on. Did I say something wrong? I remember just lying there. A few weeks later, I learned that I was pregnant. I could go to the yellow pages and call; I didn’t have to jump through any hoops or anything. When I went to my own consultation, I will never forget how I was treated. I’ll never forget being told, “If you don’t do this, you’re going to be on welfare. I just remember feeling so hurt, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt very alone, but I had the possibility to make the decision to go ahead or not. I made the best decision for me, because mentally and emotionally I was in a bad place. It was life changing because it gave me the space to take care of Cori first.


Representative Jackie Speier


Jackie Speier

Celeste Sloman

I was 40 when I had an abortion at 17 weeks. The fetus had slipped from the cervix into the vagina. They put me upside down in a hospital bed, trying to get the fetus back into the womb, and it just wasn’t happening. So I decided it was time to have an abortion. The majority of women who have abortions are mothers. I was a mother. I wanted this baby, but it wasn’t meant to be. I told my story in the House in 2011 because the very first bill that my colleagues across the aisle introduced was HR 1, which was to defund Title X. It was for Planned Parenthood, and they were particularly focused on second trimester abortions, which is what I got. I remember my colleague across the aisle talking about sawing off limbs; I felt this rage welling up inside me and I thought to myself, how dare you talk about something you know nothing about? When I stood up to speak, I said, “I had a procedure.” I was shaking. I walked to the back of the room and [the late] John Lewis stood there [with] tears in the eyes. He said, “Jackie, that’s one of the most powerful speeches I’ve heard on this floor.”


Rep. Pramila Jayapal


pramila jayapal

Celeste Sloman

I had a very difficult first pregnancy. My child, Janak, who uses the pronouns, was born at 1 pound, 14 ounces, at 26 and a half weeks. By any medical standards, they shouldn’t be here. They survived, but it was tough. [They had a lot of ongoing medical issues]– anything you can imagine as a child. I went through postpartum depression, ended up getting divorced, then [met] a wonderful man after that. I was one of those people who take birth control religiously and still get pregnant. My doctor said, “There’s no guarantee you’re not going to have the same kind of delivery. [With Janak,] I ended up having an emergency cesarean. [The doctor said,] “We don’t know why it happened with Janak, but it could happen again.” Janak was only a few years old at the time, maybe three or four. And I realized there was just no way I could take care of Janak and take care of myself and potentially go through the same scenario again. I really wanted to have another child, but I knew I couldn’t do it at that time.


Senator Gary Peters


Gary Peters

CELESTIAL SLOMAN

[My then-wife and I] were expecting a second child, a child we wanted and couldn’t wait to bring into the world. But towards the end of the second trimester, her waters broke. We knew something was seriously wrong. The doctor said, “There’s no way this fetus can survive. But because there was a low fetal heart rate, he had to get approval from the hospital board. And I’ll never forget listening to the message on the answering machine as he said, “I’m so sorry to say that the hospital denied my request.” He said he was afraid my wife had an infection and if she waited any longer for an abortion she might lose her uterus. He said, “If you wait any longer, you will lose your life.” We were lucky that a friend of ours was an administrator at another hospital and he was able to get us in immediately.


Rep. Barbara Lee


barbara lee

CELESTIAL SLOMAN

I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas and raised Catholic. Fast forward to Grade 11, way before Roe vs. Wade. I got pregnant. Of course, there was no comprehensive sex education course at school. I was in a dilemma, but thank God my mother was there to support me. She called her friend, and her friend told her not to worry, that she knew a doctor in Juárez, Mexico. Her friend took me and I was terrified. My mother gave me the money. It was $200. I will never forget that. It was a secondary clinic. But the doctor was a very good doctor; He was nice. It was late at night, maybe 10 p.m. We crept up there and walked in, and my mom’s friend was with me the whole time. And I survived. But all the while, I knew what happened to women who had these clandestine abortions, because then, for black girls and women, it was a cause of death for many of us. So of course I was scared and worried. Then I thanked God for surviving, because I knew so many women had not survived.


their conversation


abortion stories

CELESTIAL SLOMAN

Jayapal: What strikes me is how different each of our experiences was, but also how rooted they all are in this idea that it’s our choice. It is our body. We have the right to decide or not. This determination is so personal. It’s your situation, your doctor, your life. And you are the one, by the way, who has to carry the baby, take care of the baby, and so you have to be able to make that choice for yourself.

Bush: And I think the social safety net is not structured in such a way that if I hadn’t had this abortion, how was I supposed to take care of this child? Mentally and emotionally, I was not in a good place. And so having that available, it was life changing, because it gave me the space to be able to deal with Cori first before putting my hurt and my trauma on a child.

Speier: I am a practicing Catholic. I go to mass every Sunday and [one time] this older woman came up to me and said, “I want to talk to you. I thought she was going to castigate me for my position on abortion. But what she said stuck with me: “I had to carry a dead fetus to term, and it affected me all my life.” This is the kind of activity that [could] to be engaged by so many people if we don’t talk.

Li: What I found though as I spoke was that so many people had this experience that I didn’t know about. It’s still difficult to talk about it because always the stigma. Every time I heard Congresswoman Speier speak, I said, “Oh my God, that’s so brave of you.” Because she talked about it long before me. She gave me a lot of courage to step in when I did.

Jayapal: Jackie, I googled, “Has a congressman ever talked about an abortion?” And I watched your video, that same video you just described, on the floor. And I thought, if she can do it, so can I. And I just want to thank you for that. I decided that I was going to speak. It was liberating and terrifying. I had to make sure I had security around me; I received many death threats.

Rock : I was surprised at the number of men who came to me and said, “I went through this with my wife too. We don’t talk about it, but because we don’t talk about it and we keep it inside, it eats at us too. It’s such a complex question. It’s such a personal issue, and for politics to get involved in everything – to get strict rules and make decisions for people in one of the most vulnerable times they’re likely to ever have in their lives – is everything. simply unacceptable.

Li: And it will also be those women who have no money who will be denied access to abortion. It will be the women who will not be able to travel to the States to have an abortion. It will be primarily Indigenous, black and brown women, initially, who will once again be disproportionately affected. They will be the ones who will once again bear the weight of an unequal and racist system.

Bush: The way these laws are put in place, making sure we have the right people in place who recognize that it’s not about politics, it’s about people.

This conversation has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. A version of this article appears in the May 2022 issue of ELLE.

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