some political careers, there comes a moment when you must stand up and say something you never wanted to say.
For Ohio state representative Teresa Fedor, that moment came this March, as she listened to her fellow lawmakers debate a bill that would forbid abortions once a heartbeat is detected, which can sometimes be as early as six weeks. A former schoolteacher who’s served in the legislature since 2002, she says she knew it was time to tell her own story.
“I knew when I decided to stand up, there was no looking back,” she says. Fedor, 59, began indirectly, noting that she had not heard any discussion of exceptions for rape. She said she respected her opponents’ reasoning. And then, a minute into her speech, she stunned her colleagues.
“You don’t respect my reason—my rape, my abortion,” she said, her voice growing louder. “What you’re doing is so fundamentally inhuman, unconstitutional, and I’ve sat here too long.”
It was a rare moment of personal drama on the floor, but one that has become more common from both sides as the fight over abortion moves from Capitol Hill to statehouses. Hundreds of abortion restrictions have been introduced in state legislatures since the 2010 elections, when anti-abortion conservatives gained majorities in many state governments. States’ efforts to enact the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, has also reignited the debate, as legislatures grapple with how to provide reproductive care with taxpayer money. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health think tank, 231 abortion restrictions have been enacted on the state level in the last four years, compared to 189 restrictions over the previous 10 years combined. The Center for Reproductive Rights, a non-profit advocacy group promoting access to abortion and contraception, has tallied more than 330 reproductive health restrictions introduced so far in 2015, making this one of the most active years on record.
As these debates intensify, more female lawmakers are publicly airing their own histories in support of abortion and in opposition to it. “We’ve definitely noticed an uptick, and part of that is the more restrictions that are passed, the more personal it becomes, and that really compels people to share something personal in response to that,” says Kelly Baden, director of state advocacy for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Both sides are encouraging women to speak up. “We wouldn’t be having this debate if there weren’t anguish at the root of the problem,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group dedicated to getting more anti-abortion women elected to office. “There wouldn’t be any anguish if this was an appendectomy.”
The trend of statehouse revelations may have started with Texas lawmaker Wendy Davis, who drew national attention in 2013 when she mounted an 11-hour filibuster against a state bill that would impose tight restrictions. But it wasn’t until the following year, in the middle of an unsuccessful run for governor, that she revealed in an autobiography that she had undergone two abortions.
Most of the women who have spoken publicly about their abortions are pro-choice, since women opposed to abortion are of course less likely to have one. But Molly White, a 57-year-old freshman Texas lawmaker who has spoken publicly about her two abortions, ran for office specifically to keep other women from the abortion table. “It’s a choice that I deeply regret, that deeply hurt me, and I hurt others because I was hurt,” she says. “The first thing I wanted to do as an elected member was craft a coerced abortion prevention bill.”
None of women in this story said they spoke up as part of an orchestrated movement towards reproductive transparency. Instead, many said they did it because they were angry: angry at the proposed restrictions, angry at male lawmakers opining about women’s health and angry at their colleagues who talked about abortion as an abstract evil rather than a lived experience. “I had so much rage,” said Arizona state representative Victoria Steele, 58, who told her personal story in March. “How dare they do this without any regard for women’s lives?
Lucy Flores hadn’t planned to speak at all on the day she told her fellow lawmakers about her abortion. Earlier that day, a colleague had sent Flores a text message asking for some last-minute support on a bill that would revamp comprehensive sex education. “I was walking towards the hearing room, and that’s when I thought to myself, ‘Should I bring up my choice to have an abortion?’” she says. Previously in the same session in 2013, Flores, 35 and at that time a member of the Nevada Assembly, had revealed to her colleagues that she was a survivor of domestic abuse. “I thought, ‘I’ve shared so much this session, I’ll just go ahead and tell you some more,’” she says.
Flores is the rare lawmaker to publicly talk about choosing to have an abortion that was not because of medical concerns or because she had been raped. She got pregnant at 16, right after she had finished juvenile parole for driving a stolen car, evading a cop, and violating probation. She looked at her sisters struggling to raise their children on public assistance, and knew she didn’t want to go down that road. “I went to my dad and I had to ask him for the money so I could go get an abortion,” she recalls, “And having that conversation with my dad was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life.”
“I don’t regret it,” she said in her testimony to the Assembly Education Committee, as she wiped away tears. “I’m here making a difference…for other young ladies.”
Arizona state representative Victoria Steele didn’t get an abortion. But in March she revealed a different secret while testifying in committee against a bill that would make it harder for women to get abortion coverage through the Affordable Care Act. “I was asked a question in a very nasty way. The question was: ‘So, representative Steele, do you think abortion is a medical service?’ with this air of incredulity,” she says. That’s what prompted her to reveal that she had been molested and raped by a male relative for many years. And though she did not get pregnant, other victims of the same abuser did.
“One of [the other victims had asked their attacker] ‘What if I get pregnant?’ and he told her ‘Don’t worry, we’ll just stick a pencil up there and take care of it.’ And another one got pregnant, and she ended up having to go to the emergency room at the hospital because she nearly died from an illegal abortion,” she said.
Abortion restrictions that exempt rape and incest put victims in a vulnerable position, Steele says. “Can you imagine being raped and being pregnant and wanting to get an abortion and having to explain to your insurance company that you are eligible for an exemption?” she said. “What if they don’t believe you, what if there’s no police report, what if you didn’t report it? Can you imagine how re-traumatizing that would be?” She calls the Arizona legislation, which passed two weeks after her testimony, a “cruel joke.”
Steele says her only regret is that she did not have more time to ready her thoughts. “If I had had a chance to be prepared, I would have done it without crying.”
White remembers leaving the clinic a “walking dead woman” after her second abortion. She says her family coerced her into aborting a baby she wanted to keep and her doctor performed the unwanted abortion for financial gain. She opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and regularly speaks about the devastation she says it has wrought on her life. To White, a rape victim aborting her pregnancy is just perpetuating a cycle of violence. “She was a victim of a violent crime, and then after her abortion she feels like she’s committed a violent crime against her child,” she says. “The trauma of a rape is not healed by the trauma of an abortion.”
White ran for office specifically to prevent other women from choosing abortion. She’s the state leader for Operation Outcry, a national support network for people hurt by abortions. After speaking to hundreds of women, including rape victims, she concluded that “every woman that aborted her child regretted it,” and if they don’t regret it, they’re in denial. Her bill to criminalize abortion coercion is her first act as an elected representative.
On the other side of the issue is North Carolina representative Tricia Cotham, 36. She testified in April against a bill that would enforce a 72-hour waiting period before all abortions. “I heard the shaming of women,” she said. “It was portrayed that women just run to the bank, grab a latte at Starbucks, and have an abortion and do their thing.” She said she went home and wrote out her speech describing the induced physician-assisted abortion of her non-viable fetus.
“I knew that I was not going to change the minds of those who were going to vote yes. And it wasn’t about them,” she said. Instead, she said, she spoke so “somebody out there could feel maybe not feel shamed.”
Only one member of Congress has ever talked about her own abortion on the House floor. In 2011, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier of California, 65, talked about how her unborn baby had slipped out of her uterus decades earlier, a complication that threatened her life and forced her to get a second-trimester abortion.
“One of my Republican colleagues was reading from a book about a second-trimester abortion, and he started reading an excerpt where it talks about how they were sawing off the limbs of the fetus,” she said. “It just sent me into orbit.”
“I had really planned to speak about something else,” she started when she took the floor to argue against a budget amendment that would defund Planned Parenthood, a measure that was later defeated in the Senate. “I’m one of those women he spoke about just now… the procedure that you just talked about was a procedure that I endured.”
“I lost a baby,” she continued. “But for you to stand on this floor and to suggest as you have that somehow this is a procedure that is welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous. Last time I checked, abortions are legal in this country.”
The effect on her colleague was immediate, Speier recalls. “Someone said to me afterwards, ‘he was like a deer in the headlights.’”
Revealing your abortion rarely elicits mass public support. Some of these women were flooded with hate mail and death threats. “It was one of the worst experiences of my entire life,” says Nevada’s Flores of the initial response. “I wasn’t sure if I walked out of that legislative building if there was going to be some crazy person who was ready to shoot me and kill me.”
Representative Fedor says she saw one of her Republican colleagues laughing during her testimony. “I don’t appreciate that,” she said in her speech, “and it happens to be a man who’s laughing.” Fedor says she got her abortion after she was raped while serving in the military in her 20s.
“I’ve had people flip me off, I’ve had people swerve at me” in their cars, North Carolina’s Cotham says, recalling that a Republican colleague came up to her and called her a “baby-killer,” after the session adjourned.
But many say they were surprised by the level of support from across the aisle. Flores said that when a Republican colleague got a nasty email calling her “trash” and suggesting she be thrown out of the legislature, his staffer came to her office in tears because she was so upset about the backlash.
“They wrote back saying, ‘That kind of language will not be tolerated, that is our legislative colleague duly elected by the representatives of her district,’” Flores said.
Others learned that their fellow lawmakers had carried similar burdens in secret. “I had colleagues, female members who came up to me afterwards,” said Speier. “They said, ‘Jackie, I had one too, but I never could have spoken about it on the House floor.’”
For Cotham, the response from her colleagues and constituents wasn’t as important as the change her testimony made in her own life. “I left there, and I felt like 100 pounds had come off of me. I could not believe how alive I felt afterwards,” she says. “Kind of like: ‘Don’t mess with me.’”
Powerful as the personal testimonies were, they did not change the politics–on either side.
Steele’s testimony was intended to stop an Arizona bill that makes it harder for women to elect for abortion coverage through Affordable Care Act health plans, among other restrictions. That bill passed two weeks after she spoke out against it, and was subsequently signed into law.
Molly White’s bill to criminalize abortion coercion was sent back to the drawing board in order to bolster the legal language. Anti-abortion groups supported the idea of White’s bill, which included an extended waiting period for coerced abortions, but raised concerns about its ability to withstand legal challenges from pro-choice groups.
Cotham spoke out against a North Carolina bill that would require 72-hour waiting periods to get an abortion. That bill passed and was signed into law in June, making North Carolina the fourth state to enact such a long waiting period.
The budget amendment to defund Planned Parenthood passed the U.S. House of Representatives despite Speier’s testimony, although it later failed in the Senate. And the fetal heart-rate bill that Fedor opposed passed the Ohio House and is currently being debated in the state Senate.
Still, those who have done it are encouraging more women come forward about their abortions. “I think for women who are weighing whether or not they should speak out, I think we have an obligation to do so,” says Speier. “Because it’s got to come out from the shadows.”
“I don’t think I had emotionally moved on,” says Cotham. “The real healing came that day on the floor.”