Trigger warning: This story discusses sexual assault.
At a hearing on reproductive rights this Thursday morning, Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush shared her abortion testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, along with Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal.
"To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions, we have nothing to be ashamed of," said Bush during the hearing. "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. That's why I'm here to tell my story. So today I sit before you as that nurse, 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."
Cori Bush’s testimony is in direct response to the surge in anti-abortion legislation throughout America — legislation like Texas Senate Bill 8, which went into effect earlier this month and is a near-total ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy. Currently, Texas’ six-week ban is the first of its kind to be allowed to go into effect.
The hearing also comes only a few days before the Women’s March and rally in support of reproductive rights commences in Washington, D.C. on October 2. Ahead of the hearing, Bush, Lee, and Jayapal also shared their personal accounts in an interview with NBC News. All three congresswomen have vastly different experiences with abortion, and chose to end their pregnancies for different reasons.
Lee, who is a Co-Chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, told NBC News that when she became unexpectedly pregnant at 16, she had traveled to a “back-alley clinic” in Mexico to see a doctor that was recommended by a family friend. Lee's abortion took place before Roe v. Wade.
"I was one of those that survived and I think it's my duty now, as hard as this is, to talk about it. Because I know it's going to happen again if we don't stop what's taking place," said Lee, referencing the number of people who die from unsafe abortions around the world.
At Thursday's hearing, she shared more of her story. "This was in the mid-1960's when 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," said Lee. "I was one of the lucky ones… A lot of girls and women in my generation didn't make it. They died from unsafe abortions. In the 1960s, unsafe septic abortions were the primary killer, primary killer of African American women. Personal experience shaped my beliefs to fight for people's reproductive freedom."
Jayapal told NBC News that testifying was important to her because it “makes it official." “It puts it in the record," she said. Jayapal, who chose to have an abortion after already being a mother, shared that her decision was influenced by her existing and possible health complications and her experience with postpartum depression after her first pregnancy.
"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 was 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," Jayapal said during Thursday's hearing. "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."
Bush detailed her experience with abortion further in an interview with Vanity Fair, published on Wednesday. While on an annual church trip at age 17, Bush says she was raped by an older man in a leadership position. “Now I know that was a sexual assault,” said Bush in the interview. “It’s even hard for me to say a little bit, because I’m still really trying to process all of it. Soon, Bush learned that she was pregnant, and ultimately chose to have an abortion at nine weeks.
During the hearing, Bush detailed the racism she experienced at the local clinic she visited and the shame and fear she felt leading up to the procedure. But afterwards, even while experiencing side effects of the procedure, Bush said the strongest feeling she felt was resolve.
“My body ached and I had this heavy bleeding,” she said. “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. ”
Bush believes that the sharing of personal stories can help push the needle towards change during such a critical moment for reproductive rights, in which there is lack of access to factual sexual health education and the access to safe abortions is being threatened.
By speaking out in the public and political spheres, Bush hopes to raise the volume on a national conversation. “Missouri has passed an abortion ban that starts at eight weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest,” she told Vanity Fair. “If we don’t catch this, if we don’t stop this, it’s just gonna be more and more all across the country.”
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