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Abortion testimonials from women in Congress punctuate hearing on SB8, the Texas ‘bounty’ law

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

House oversight hearing on abortion rights gets emotional with personal accounts from female lawmakers.
Rep. Cori Bush
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., wipes away a tear as she prepares to testify about being raped and having an abortion during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing Sept. 30, 2021.(Jacquelyn Martin / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By Todd J. Gillman

WASHINGTON — Congress heard gut-wrenching abortion testimonials Thursday — mostly from female lawmakers who have terminated pregnancies — at a hearing on Texas’ new 6-week ban and the possibility that the Supreme Court will soon overturn Roe vs. Wade.

“I was raped, I became pregnant, and I chose to have an abortion,” testified Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, recounting an attack during a church trip. “How could I, 18 years old and barely scraping by, support a child on my own?”

Revelatory appeals to protect abortion rights, and pleas from conservatives to protect unborn life punctuated the extraordinary five-hour hearing that marked one full month since Senate Bill 8 took effect in Texas on Sept. 1.

The law bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected and offers $10,000 bounties for lawsuits against anyone who aids or abets such an abortion. The deterrent effect has brought abortion to a near standstill in Texas.

The House Oversight Committee heard testimony about desperate women driving hundreds of miles to out-of-state clinics, while untold thousands who can’t afford such treks have already been forced to continue unwanted pregnancies.

“Today marks the 30th day that people in Texas have woken up with fewer constitutional rights than the rest of the country,” testified Melissa Murray, a law professor at New York University.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem likened the authors behind SB8 to history’s most infamous fascists.

“Remember, when Hitler was elected — and he was elected — his very first official act was to padlock the family planning clinics and declare abortion a crime against the state. Mussolini did exactly the same thing. Because they knew that controlling reproduction and nationalizing women’s bodies is the first step in an all-controlling state,” she said during her testimony.

“The huge majority of American women stand for democracy, and in opposition to Texas Senate Bill 8. We do not want to have our bodies nationalized. Otherwise, we will be very close to turning back the clock to the days of the 1950s, when one in three women had an illegal, and a dangerous, abortion,” she added.

Such a hearing would have been unimaginable in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe — a case stemming from a Dallas County prosecution — that women have a right to abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb. That was about 28 weeks in 1973 and closer to 22 weeks now thanks to medical advances.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., testifies about her decision to have an abortion, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, during a House oversight hearing.(Jacquelyn Martin / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Women now comprise over a quarter of the U.S. House: 123 members, including seven from Texas. Of those, 90 are Democrats and 33 are Republicans.

Republican women on the oversight panel also brought their motherhood to bear for effect during the hearing.

“People need to know we’re talking about dismembering a baby,” said Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M. “Let’s call it what it is.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., accused Democrats of trying to “normalize the destruction of unborn babies.”

“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, or even to cry for help. Children in the womb are people,” she said.

Last week, the House passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify Roe by enshrining the right to abortion in federal law.

On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a 15-week ban In Mississippi. Advocates on both sides say the conservative majority could use the case to overturn Roe and erase federal protection for abortion rights — a perception fueled by the high court’s refusal to block SB8 from taking effect as lower courts weighed challenges.

Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, a Dallas obstetrician/gynecologist and board member of Physicians for Reproductive Health who described herself as “a proud abortion provider,” testified that Texas’ new law hampers adequate medical care.

“My colleagues are asking if they’re still allowed to treat an ectopic pregnancy or a miscarriage. … It has made it extremely dangerous to be pregnant in Texas,” she said.

From Dallas, the next closest clinic is in Oklahoma City. Moayedi was there last week, caring for patients from Texas. Some had come from as far as San Antonio, 8 hours away.

“Abortion care has almost completely stopped in our state,” she said. “The impact of this law is devastating.”

Moayedi explained some of the requirements imposed by Texas law: allowing only physicians to perform an abortion, even drug-induced; requiring medically unnecessary ultrasounds; requiring the ultrasound and abortion to be performed by the same doctor.

That “sounds like an over-regulated regime in Texas,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

Brandishing a white N95 facemask, he needled Republicans for violating their purported aversion to government regulation.

“I find it ironic that the same people who say wearing a mask compromises my personal autonomy have no compunction about imposing on women in this country and in the state of Texas some of the most restrictive legislation governing this most sacred autonomy possible — control of your own body,” he said.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., right, is hugged by Rep. Rashida Tlaib
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., right, is hugged by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., after Bush’s testimony during a House oversight committee hearing on Sept. 30, 2021. Bush testified about being raped and her subsequent decision to have an abortion.(Jacquelyn Martin / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Emotional testimony

The amount of autobiographical detail at Thursday’s hearing was remarkable.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a 75-year-old California Democrat, recounted her “back alley abortion” in Mexico when she was 16, the first black cheerleader at her high school and an honor student.

With abortion unavailable in those pre-Roe years, her mom sent her to a friend in El Paso, where Lee had been born. The friend took her across the border to a “good, competent and compassionate doctor.”

“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., described herself as one of the one in four women in the United States who have terminated a pregnancy. She called the Texas ban “cruel.”

After her first child was born premature and weighing less than 2 pounds, doctors warned that any future pregnancy would be high-risk.

“I very much wanted to have more children, but I simply could not imagine going through that again,” she told colleagues. “Ending the pregnancy was the most difficult choice I’ve made in my life.”

One GOP lawmaker/witness offered equally emotional testimony, from another perspective.

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., told colleagues of her mom’s devastating stroke while carrying an older sibling. A few years later her mom got pregnant again, with her, and rejected doctors’ advice to abort.

“That wasn’t an easy decision for a single mom,” Cammack said. “I am a living breathing witness of the power of life and the incredible choice that my own mother made.”

Numerous members of Congress without a Y chromosome schooled their counterparts on the uncertainties of fertility cycles, aiming to puncture claims that women have plenty of time to get an abortion under SB 8′s heartbeat cutoff.

“I’m 115 pounds,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y. “You look at me funny [and] I’m two weeks late for my period. And you’re supposed to expect me to know that I’m pregnant?”

‘Extremely important’

Republicans complained repeatedly during the hearing, contending there are higher priorities and in any case, Congress shouldn’t be meddling in state-level regulations.

Rep. Pat Fallon, a freshman from Sherman, Texas, cited security at the U.S.-Mexico border, fears of immigrants bringing COVID-19 into the country, and an ongoing mystery about the origin of the pandemic.

Gloria Steinem testifies via video
Gloria Steinem testifies via video about abortion on Sept. 30, 2021, during a House oversight hearing.(Jacquelyn Martin / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Committee chair Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, chastised Fallon and others for such complaints.

“You may not think it’s important,” she said.

But with Texas “bulldozing” over women’s rights and deciding whether they “can make decisions about their own health care and their own reproductive rights, I find it extremely important … Half of America thinks it’s important.”

“This chilling, far-reaching law turns private citizens into vigilantes who can assert control over other people’s bodies,” she said.

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., shot back: “When two healthy people enter a doctor’s office and only one comes out, that’s not health care.”

The lack of a rape or incest exception in SB 8 drew much scrutiny. Just 23% of reported rapes in Texas lead to an arrest, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Witness Loretta Ross, co-founder of the Reproductive Justice Movement and an associate professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College, called the loss of abortion access a violation of human rights made worse by the lack of a rape exception.

A 27-year-old cousin who was babysitting her raped her when she was 14, she told the committee.

It was 1968. She lived in San Antonio and legal abortion was not an option. She moved to a home for unwed mothers intending to give up the baby for adoption, but ended up keeping him.

“For the next 30 years I ended up co-parenting with my rapist,” Ross said. “I want to talk about what it’s really like for people who don’t have choices, who live in Texas, who shouldn’t have to go through what I went through in San Antonio.”

The anti-abortion side was represented at the witness table by Dr. Ingrid Skop, an ob/gyn in San Antonio who has delivered over 5,000 babies. She likened abortion to “genocide.”

Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, said that in the early 1970s, “abortion advocates would often call it a blob of tissue.” He led Skop through an explanation of fetal development aimed at showing that well before viability, a fetus has a heartbeat, fingerprints, a left-or right-handed preference, and an ability to feel pain.

Skop said that during fetal surgery, anesthesiologists provide pain medication to a fetus as young as 18 weeks. As early as 16 weeks, she said, a fetus poked accidentally during amniocentesis would “do all of the things that we would do if we experience pain. It will withdraw from the pain sensation, its heart rate will go up, it will release stress hormones.”

Conservatives on the panel dismissed complaints about eroding rights.

“You’ve got about as much constitutional right to kill an unborn baby as you do your neighbor,” said Rep. Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican and a pastor with a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

Republicans offered no defense of SB 8′s novel enforcement mechanism.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, described the bounties and lawsuits as a “nightmare Orwellian world that the GOP wants to deliver to us.”

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