On Thursday, three women of color — sitting members of Congress — testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about abortions they had received, describing, in some cases, the stigma attached to them.
At the hearing, entitled “A Dire State: Examining the Urgent Need to Protect and Expand Abortion Rights and Access in the United States,” they spoke in wrenching terms about the choices they had made.
Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, talked about having an abortion at age 17 after surviving a rape, saying simply: “I was raped, I became pregnant and I chose to have an abortion.”
And she spoke about how the counseling before the procedure belittled and diminished her, saying she remembered “being told that if I moved 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 would wind up on food stamps and welfare.”
Then, as The New York Times reported, Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, told her story. She had gotten 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.”
And Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, spoke about getting a “back alley” abortion in Mexico as a teenager before abortion was legal in the United States.
All of this testimony came at a time when Congress is debating codifying Roe v. Wade as means of protecting it from Republican assaults, but for me these testimonies were powerful in another way: They once again underscored just how difficult a decision this is for many women and the degree to which others feel empowered to intrude on the decisions they make.
This is particularly true of men, who have never been faced with the choice and never will. We need to hear these stories to understand it.
On one level, abortion strikes to the core of people, because it makes us consider the question of when a fertilized egg becomes a person.
If you believe that it is from the moment of conception, there is nothing anyone can tell you that would make it OK to terminate a pregnancy, because to you the entire enterprise is one of killing babies.
But is a clump of cells a child? Is a fetus a child? These debates can quickly veer into the philosophical and religious.
Since 1973, Roe v. Wade has protected a woman’s right to an abortion before a fetus becomes viable outside the womb, about 24 weeks into the pregnancy.
Now, that too is under attack.
I listened to the testimony of these women with great humility, from an outside place, with the privilege of knowing that my body was not built for this purpose. The ability to carry a life and bring it into world is a tremendous power, and a gift. But carrying a pregnancy to term is simply not right for many women at the point in which they become pregnant.
It is at that point that their bodies become a battleground. At what stage of pregnancy are they still the person in control and at what point must they submit to being a vessel for a “person” growing inside them? At what stage is choice eliminated?
Viability is the legal standard, whatever anyone may believe.
We also have to remember the shame that many women who have had abortions have expressed, even if they can now say that they are past shame. Why should any woman feel shame about a difficult choice? They have enough to deal with without the rest of society weighing in on their choices.
In the first months after conception, after a woman knows for sure that she is pregnant and before the fetus become viable, she needs to feel free to make choices about her body, her health and her future. That shouldn’t be subject to community approval. That shouldn’t be against the law.
The law passed in Texas banning most abortions after the first six weeks of a pregnancy, before many women even know that they are pregnant, is an outrage and an offense. It puts the state — and even deputized citizen vigilantes — between a woman and her doctor.
It feels like we are in a very dangerous place in this country, like Roe v. Wade is under threat in a way that it hasn’t been in recent memory. It feels like we are on a precipice of pushing women back in time and back into alleys. It feels like we could once again be on the edge of criminalizing choice.
If men were the ones who got pregnant, this would never have happened. Men wouldn’t stand for it. Women shouldn’t either.
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