Politics

A Congresswoman’s Story: Raped at 17, ‘I Chose to Have an Abortion’

WASHINGTON — Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, is known on Capitol Hill as a nurse, a pastor, a Black Lives Matter activist and a member of a “squad” of progressive women lawmakers. On Thursday, she told a House panel that she is also a rape survivor who had an abortion after she was attacked on a church trip when she was 17.

Ms. Bush said she is no longer ashamed. “In the summer of 1994,” she declared, “I was raped, I became pregnant and I chose to have an abortion.”

With the right to abortion under threat after a major Supreme Court setback, Ms. Bush was one of three Democratic congresswomen who sat at a witness table to share their personal experiences with terminating a pregnancy. The hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform reflected a sharp cultural divide, with Republicans accusing Democrats of “glorifying and normalizing” abortion, and Democrats making their point — that abortion is a decision best left to women and their doctors — in matter-of-fact terms.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, got an abortion when she was a young mother caring for a very sick child and struggling to recover from postpartum depression so severe that she considered suicide. Her doctor told her that carrying a second child to term would be extremely risky for both her and the baby.

“I very much wanted to have more children,” she told the panel, “but I simply could not imagine going through that again.”

Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, was the first Black cheerleader in her high school and a promising student with good grades when she got pregnant before abortion was legal in the United States. Her mother sent her to a friend in Texas, who took her for a “back alley” abortion at a clinic in Mexico.

“A lot of girls and women in my generation didn’t make it — they died from unsafe abortions,” she said.

But Representative Kat Cammack, a freshman from Florida and the lone Republican member of Congress to testify, offered a starkly different personal story, telling her colleagues that she “would not be here” if her mother, who suffered a stroke after having her first child, had not rebuffed a doctor’s advice to have an abortion.

“You can imagine the feeling, the disappointment, the struggle, the internal anguish that my mother felt,” Ms. Cammack said, adding, “She chose life. That wasn’t an easy decision for a single mom.”

The debate over abortion rights has flared up again on Capitol Hill after the Supreme Court refused earlier this month to block a Texas law prohibiting most abortions. With other states rushing to enact similar restrictions, and the court, now dominated by conservatives, preparing to take up a case that could overturn the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Democrats are making the issue a centerpiece of their campaign strategy for next year’s midterm elections.

They are also seeking to advance legislation that would codify the Roe decision; the House last week passed the Women’s Health Protection Act to do just that. But the bill has little chance of advancing in the closely divided Senate, where Republicans are strongly opposed.

Thursday’s hearing, which also featured a virtual appearance by the women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, demonstrated the depth of that partisan split. Representatives James R. Comer of Kentucky, Republican of Kentucky, insisted that Congress must continue to ban taxpayer-funded abortions, while Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, said she felt “profound sorrow” for women who terminated their pregnancies.

“Instead of glorifying this awful act of desperation, we ought to grieve for the tens of millions of Americans who never had a chance to take their first breath, to see their mother’s face,” Ms. Foxx said.

A recent NBC poll found that a majority of Americans — 54 percent — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That included clear majorities of women, suburbanites and people living in the Northeast. But majorities of evangelical Christians, rural Americans, and Southerners said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

The hearing, entitled “A Dire State: Examining the Urgent Need to Protect and Expand Abortion Rights and Access in the United States,” also revealed how the issue of abortion is intertwined with America’s racial divide. Ms. Bush described how belittled she felt, as a Black teenager, “in being told that if I had this baby, I would wind up on food stamps and welfare.”

Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is Black, spoke in her opening statement of how denying abortion care affects people of color, including “our lowest income sisters; our queer, trans and nonbinary siblings.”

“These bans,” she asserted, “are rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy.”

Later in the hearing, Dr. Ingrid Skop, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Texas who was invited to testify by Republicans, pushed back, noting that abortion rates are much higher among Black women than among whites. “It’s not racist to want to save those children,” she said.

But it was Ms. Bush, a freshman who became a Democratic star last year when she unseated a veteran Democrat in a primary, whose testimony was especially raw. She spoke of how, not long before her 18th birthday, she met an older boy, who was about 20, on a church trip to Jackson, Miss. They spoke on the phone and he invited himself to her room; by the time he showed up, she had already gone to bed.

She let him in quietly, thinking they would talk, she said, and “the next thing I knew he was on top of me messing with my clothes and not saying anything at all.” She never heard from him again, despite repeated attempts to get in touch after learning she was pregnant. She felt confused, embarrassed and ashamed, she said, and blamed herself.

“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,” said Ms. Bush, who also tweeted about her abortion on Wednesday, saying it was a story she had never “fully told publicly” before.

“To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions, we have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “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.”

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