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“We Demand Better”: Reps. Cori Bush, Pramila Jayapal & Barbara Lee Share Their Own Abortion Stories

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Thousands marched Saturday in more than 600 demonstrations across the United States to protest increasing state restrictions on abortion. The “Bans Off Our Bodies” rallies were sparked in part by a near-total ban on abortion that went into effect in Texas on September 1, which bans the procedure after about six weeks and lets anyone sue the doctor and others who help a person obtain an abortion. Ahead of Saturday’s nationwide actions, several Democratic House members shared their own experiences getting abortions during a hearing Thursday, including California Congressmember Barbara Lee, who said she was just 16 when she had to travel to Mexico for a so-called back-alley abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade, and Congressmember Cori Bush, who described getting an abortion after she was raped at 17. “To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions: We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Bush said. “We deserve better. We demand better. We are worthy of better.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Thousands marched Saturday in more than 600 protests across the United States with the message “Bans Off Our Bodies” amidst increasing state restrictions on abortion. This year alone, more than 600 restrictions were introduced, with at least 90 enacted into law. Saturday’s actions came in response to a near-total ban on abortions that went into effect in Texas September 1st. The law bans abortions after about six weeks — before most people even know they’re pregnant. This is Top Chef host and author Padma Lakshmi addressing a massive women’s march for abortion rights in Houston, Texas.

PADMA LAKSHMI: The bill doesn’t even allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. Have you experienced rape or sexual violence, Governor Abbott? I hope not. But I have, multiple times. And I’m sure many people here today have, too. When I was raped at 16, the only saving grace was that I didn’t become pregnant. When asked if it was reasonable to tell a rape victim that they can’t get an abortion, Abbott said, “Well, don’t worry about it, because we’re going to eliminate rape as a problem.” Really, Governor? Really? Because eight out of 10 rapes are committed by people the victim knows, and only 1% of all rapes and attempted rapes result in felony convictions. I know how sexual violence can make people feel powerless, and this bill is a knife in the heart to those very same people.

AMY GOODMAN: A federal judge in Texas is now considering arguments from the Justice Department over whether to suspend the Texas ban while courts consider its legality. Other states have similar abortion bans in the works by Republican state lawmakers, including Arkansas, South Carolina, South Dakota and Florida. This is a protester at a rally Saturday in Miami.

PROTESTER: My own rights were being violated at that point, my rights as like a person in the future and a person now. I’m 17 years old, so I am kind of like the face of change, in a way, because we are the new generation, so we need to make sure that our rights are heard, understood, and we need to make sure that, like, the people in power that can actually make change listen to us, the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of protesters also marched Saturday in Washington, D.C., outside the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservative majority could impose more abortion restrictions in the coming months. On December 1st, the court will hear a case concerning a Mississippi abortion law that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Ahead of the nationwide actions, several Democratic House members shared their personal experiences getting abortions themselves at a hearing Thursday on the Texas abortion ban by the Committee on Oversight and Reform. They gave deeply moving testimonies. This is Missouri Congressmember Cori Bush sharing how she had an abortion after being raped at 17.

REP. CORI BUSH: In the summer of 1994, I was a young girl, all of 17 years old, and had just graduated high school. Like so many Black girls during that time, I was obsessed with fashion and gold jewelry and how I physically showed up in the world. But I was also very lost. For all of my life, I had been a straight-A student with the dreams of attending college and becoming a nurse. But high school, early on, was difficult for me. I was discriminated against, bullied, and as time passed, my grades slipped, and, along with it, the dream of attaining a full scholarship to a historically Black college. That summer, I was just happy that I passed my classes and that I finished high school.

Shortly after graduating, I went on a church trip to Jackson, Mississippi. I had many friends on that trip. And while there, I met a boy, a friend of a friend. He was a little older than I was, about maybe 20 years old. That first day we met, we flirted. We talked on the phone. While on the phone, he asked me: Could he come over to my room? I was bunking with a friend and hanging out and said he could stop by. But he didn’t show up for a few hours, and by the time he did, it was so late that my friend and I had gone to bed. I answered the door and quietly told him he could come in, imagining that we would talk and laugh like we had done over the phone. But the next thing I knew, he was on top of me, messing with my clothes and not saying anything at all. “What is happening?” I thought. I didn’t know what to do. I was frozen in shock just laying there as his weight pressed down upon me. When he was done, he got up, he pulled up his pants, and, without a word, he left. That was it. I was confused. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I asked myself, “Was it something that I had done?” The next morning, I wanted to talk to him. I just wanted to say something to him. But he refused to talk to me. By the time that trip ended, we still hadn’t spoken at all.

About a month after the trip, I turned 18. A few weeks later, I realized I had missed my period. I reached out to a friend and asked the guy from the church trip to contact me. I waited for him to reach out, but he never did. I never heard from him. I was 18, I was broke, and I felt so alone. I blamed myself for what had happened to me. But I knew I had options. I had known other girls who had gone to a local clinic to get birth control and some who had gotten abortions. So I looked through the yellow pages and scheduled an appointment. During my first visit, I found out that I was nine weeks — nine weeks pregnant.

And then, there, the panic set in. How could I make this pregnancy work? How could I, at 18 years old and barely scraping by, support a child on my own? And I would have been on my own. I was stressed out, knowing that the father wouldn’t be involved and that I feared my parents would kick me out of the home — the best parents in the world, but I feared they would kick me out. My dad was a proud father and always bragging about his little girl and how he knew I would go straight to college and become attorney general. That was his goal for me. So, with no scholarship intact and college out of the foreseeable future, I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing my dad again. I knew it was a decision I had to make for myself, so I did.

My abortion happened on a Saturday. There were a few other people in the clinic room, waiting room, including one other young Black girl. I overheard the clinic staff talking about her, saying she had ruined her life, “and that’s what they do” — “they” being Black girls like us. Before the procedure, I remember going in for counseling and being told that if I move forward with this pregnancy, my baby would be jacked up, because the fetus was already malnourished and underweight, being told that if I had this baby, I will wind up on food stamps and welfare. I was being talked to like trash, and it worsened my shame. Afterwards while in the changing area, I heard some girls — all white — talking about how they were told how bright their futures were, how loved their babies would be if they adopted, and that their options and their opportunities were limitless. In that moment listening to those girls, I felt anguish. I felt like I had failed.

I went home. My body ached, and I had this heavy bleeding. I felt so sick. I felt dizzy, nauseous. I felt like something was missing. I felt alone. But I also felt so resolved in my decision. Choosing to have an abortion was the hardest decision I had ever made, but, at 18 years old, I knew it was the right decision for me. It was freeing, knowing I had options. Even still, it took long for me to feel like me again, until most recently, when I decided to give this speech.

So, to all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions: We have nothing to be ashamed of. We live in a society that has failed to legislate love and justice for us, so we deserve better, we demand better, we are worthy of better. So that’s why I’m here to tell my story. So, today, I sit before you as that nurse, as that pastor — as that pastor, as that activist, that survivor, that single mom, that congresswoman, to testify that in the summer of 1994, I was raped, I became pregnant, and I chose to have an abortion.

AMY GOODMAN: St. Louis Congressmember Cori Bush speaking in the House on Thursday. A bill banning abortions at eight weeks in Bush’s home state of Missouri was passed in 2019 but is on hold during legal challenges. Missouri Republicans say they plan on introducing an even more restrictive measure modeled on Texas’s near-total abortion ban.

Seattle Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also shared her own experience Thursday about getting an abortion.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: [I speak to you] as one of the one in four women in America who have had an abortion. And for you to understand how I ultimately decided to have an abortion, I have to start earlier, with the birth of my first child, Janak.

Janak was born at 26-and-a-half weeks while I was on a two-year fellowship, living in India. They weighed only one pound 14 ounces and, upon birth, went down to a weight of just 21 ounces. Janak was so small, they fit in the palm of my hand — the size of a medium-sized squash. For three months, we did not know if Janak would live or die. They needed multiple blood transfusions, had to be fed drop by drop, and constantly had their heart stop and start.

We returned to the United States after three months. In those early, intensely difficult years, Janak had hydrocephalus — water on the brain —  seizures and repeatedly returned to the emergency room because of life-threatening pneumonia. The fact that Janak is a 25-year-old beautiful human being is a true miracle and the greatest gift in my life.

At the same time that Janak was born, I was also fighting to keep my legal permanent resident status, married to a U.S. citizen with a U.S. citizen child now. In the end, I was able to return to the United States with Janak, provided that I started from scratch to qualify for citizenship.

As a new mom taking care of a very sick baby and recovering from major surgery myself, I was struggling. I experienced severe postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that was only diagnosed after I contemplated suicide and realized I needed to seek help. My marriage did not survive. We split custody of Janak, and I was a part-time single parent.

Shortly after, I met a wonderful man, who is my husband today. I knew I was not ready to have another child, so I religiously took my daily contraceptive pill. Despite that, I became pregnant. I consulted with my doctors, who told me that any future pregnancy would likely also be high risk to me and the child, similar to what I had gone through with Janak. I very much wanted to have more children, but I simply could not imagine going through that again.

After discussions with my partner, who was completely supportive of whatever choice I made, I decided to have an abortion. Two decades later, I think about those moments on the table in the doctor’s office, a doctor who was kind and compassionate and skilled, performing abortions in a state that recognizes a person’s constitutional right to make their choices about their reproductive care.

For me, terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice, the most difficult I’ve made in my life. But it was my choice. And that is what must be preserved for every pregnant person.

Until 2019, I never spoke publicly or privately about my abortion. In fact, I did not even tell my mother about it. Some of it was because, as an immigrant from a culture that deeply values children and in an American society that still stigmatizes abortion, suicide and mental health needs, I felt shame that I never should have felt.

Two years ago, I decided to tell my story as a member of Congress, because I was so deeply concerned about the abortion ban legislation that was coming out from states across the country. Today, I am testifying before you because I want you to know that there are so many different situations that people face in making these choices.

Whether the choice to have an abortion is easy or hard, whether there are traumatic situations or not, none of that should be the issue. It is simply nobody’s business what choices we, as pregnant people, make about our own bodies. And let me be clear: I would never tell people who don’t choose to have an abortion that they should do so, nor should they tell me that I shouldn’t. This is a constitutionally protected, intensely personal choice.

I did not suffer the economic issues that so many poor and Black and Brown and Latinx people suffer. I did not suffer from living in a state that does not allow pregnant people to make these choices. And unlike one of my colleagues who is testifying today, I had the privilege of experiencing the world in a post-Roe v. Wade time where abortion was established as a constitutional right.

Because of the cruel Texas abortion ban and the other state abortion bans currently being litigated by those unaffected by the outcome, many people may not have the same choice as I did. That is unacceptable. Abortion bans are not just a political issue. They do real harm to people across the country and in our most vulnerable communities.

I am so proud today to be testifying alongside fellow women of color members of Congress about the need to protect our right to control our bodies. It is time to make the Women’s Health Protection Act law, repeal the Hyde Amendment and to remove the stigma around abortion care and reproductive health choices.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Washington Congressmember Pramila Jayapal of Seattle. California Congressmember Barbara Lee also testified at Thursday’s hearing about having an abortion.

REP. BARBARA LEE: I’m sharing my story even though I truly believe it is personal and really nobody’s business, and certainly not the business of politicians. But I’m compelled to speak out because of the real risks of the clock being turned back to those days before Roe v. Wade, to the days when I was a teenager and had a back-alley abortion in Mexico.

I was raised in El Paso, Texas, and attended Catholic school. So, of course, growing up, sex education was nonexistent. Adolescent sexual and reproductive health were not discussed in a meaningful way, and because of that, I honestly wasn’t sure how you got pregnant. Most of what I learned about sex and relationships was from pages of magazines and hearsay from my peers. I lived in a loving, extended family household with my wonderful parents and grandparents, who wanted me to make straight As, practice the piano day and night, and, of course, stay away from boys.

Now, after grammar school, we moved to California. And later, when I just turned 16, I missed my period. I was confused, afraid and unsure, not knowing if I was pregnant or not. I didn’t know what to do. Now, in those days, mind you — this is in the mid-1960s — women and girls were told, if you didn’t have a period, you should take quinine pills, sit in a tub of water, or use a coat hanger, if nothing else worked.

My mother noticed I became introverted and very quiet, so she asked me what was going on with me. At that point, I told her everything. I told her that I maybe, maybe not, could be pregnant. She responded with love. She was supportive and sympathetic and took me to the doctor, who confirmed I was pregnant.

Now, my mother asked me if I wanted to get an abortion. She didn’t demand or force me, but understood that this was my personal decision and a choice that I needed to make, and she would support me regardless.

Now, mind you, I was the first Black cheerleader in my high school, got very good grades, was active in my church and a member of the Honor Society and an accomplished pianist. In fact, I won two music scholarships. So I felt embarrassed and thought, if anyone found out, my life would be destroyed. It was so important for me to have someone I trusted to help me with this decision.

So, once I made this decision, prayerfully, one of my mother’s best friends in El Paso helped me access the abortion I could not get in California. When my mother told her what was going on, she told my mother to send me to her in El Paso, because she knew of a good, competent and compassionate doctor, yes, who had a back-alley clinic in Mexico. She was kind and loving, took me to Mexico to having a D&C abortion procedure. Remember, I just turned 16. And I was one of the lucky ones, Madam Chair. A lot of girls and women in my generation didn’t make it. They died from unsafe abortions.

AMY GOODMAN: California Congressmember Barbara Lee sharing her personal abortion story during a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday on the attacks on reproductive rights.

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Bans Off Our Bodies: Planned Parenthood Pres. on Abortion Bans, Bills in Congress & the Supreme Court

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