WASHINGTON — House lawmakers tearfully recounted traumatic stories of being raped, getting back-alley abortions and confronting pregnancy as teenagers at an emotional hearing Thursday examining how abortion rights have come under threat in many states.
Freshman Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., testified that in 1994, she was raped during the summer after she graduated from high school and later found out she was nine weeks pregnant. Bush said she met a man on a church trip to Jackson, Miss., who came to the room she was staying in with a friend, and she invited him in, thinking they would just talk and laugh.
“But the next thing I knew, he was on top of me, messing with my clothes and not saying anything at all,” Bush told members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “I was frozen, in shock, just laying there as his weight pressed down upon me.”
“When he was done, he got up, he pulled up his pants, and without a word, he left," she said. "That was it. I was confused, I was embarrassed, I was ashamed. I asked myself, ‘Was this something that I had done?’”
Bush said she panicked when she found out she was pregnant and decided to get an abortion after wondering how she could support a child on her own at 18 years old. When she had the procedure done, she said the clinic staff spoke to her like she was "trash,” telling her she would wind up on food stamps if she had the baby.
“To all the black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions, we have nothing to be ashamed of," Bush said. "We live in a society that has failed to legislate love and justice for us, so we deserve better."
Bush, Rep. Barbara Lee and other lawmakers joined feminist Gloria Steinem, reproductive justice advocate Loretta Ross, and Texas-based Drs. Ghazaleh Moayedi, who provides abortions, and Ingrid Skop, who opposes them, in testifying Thursday. Democrats called the hearing in response to mounting challenges to abortion rights across the nation, including a Mississippi case that will be argued before the Supreme Court in December and anti-abortion laws in numerous conservative-leaning states, such as Texas' new law banning the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy.
At the hearing, Lee, D-Calif., shared her story of getting an abortion at a back-alley clinic in Mexico after finding out she was pregnant at 16 years old, when she was living in California. It was the mid-1960s, years before the right to an abortion became legal through the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Lee eventually had two sons and now has five grandchildren, she said.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said. “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 of African American women.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in testimony that she also got an abortion after she had a high-risk pregnancy with her first child. She described it as the “most difficult” choice she’s made in her life.
"It is simply nobody's business what choices we as pregnant people make about our own bodies," she said.
After the lawmakers' finished testifying, Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., hugged their three Democratic colleagues as Lee cried and wiped away tears.
Ross testified that she became pregnant at 14 years old through incest in 1968 and ultimately had the child.
"I didn’t have any choice whether to have sex, whether to have a child, and it was so hard to raise that child born of rape and incest. I really don’t think it should be more difficult 53 years later for a child in Texas than it was for me in 1968," she said.
Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., also shared the story of how her mother was told it was highly unlikely that she or Cammack would survive if her mother gave birth, but she chose to carry the pregnancy to term.
“You can imagine the pain that she felt when her own family told her that she needed to abort her child," Cammack said of her mom. "But because of her strength, she chose life. She did something that many of my colleagues here could have done.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., who like many Republicans is anti-abortion, said it appeared to her "that the purpose of this hearing is to normalize the destruction of unborn babies.”
“I feel profound sorrow for any woman who believes that she must destroy her unborn child,” Foxx said.
The hearing grew heated when Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., asked Dr. Skop if she would want her daughter to carry a fetus to term if she were raped.
Skop repeatedly avoided answering the question, and Rep. Nancy Mace, R-N.C., later called her Democratic colleague's question "offensive and disgusting."
"I can't even tell you the unimaginable anger and pain that I have as a woman when someone wants to make that kind of hypothetical example," said Mace, who has previously told the story of being raped at the age of 16. She said Thursday that she's against abortion but supports exceptions in the cases of rape and incest.
At the start of the hearing, Maloney said she believes there is “a very real possibility” that the constitutional right to abortion will be overturned in the coming months when the Supreme Court hears the Mississippi case that poses a challenge to Roe v. Wade. She also spoke about the Texas abortion law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, which she called a “total ban on abortion” because most women find out they are pregnant after that time frame.
Maloney urged the Senate to take up legislation passed by the House last week that codifies the right to an abortion. The measure, however, faces a dead end in that chamber, where Democrats would need to find at least 10 Republicans to join them in support of the legislation.
After the hearing, Maloney vowed nonetheless to press forward with the effort to advance the bill, even if it meant doing away with the filibuster, in the face of what she characterized as "a ground shift in strategy" among those opposing abortion rights.
"They're not chipping away anymore," she said. "They are bulldozing it into the ground."
"These are life wrenching decisions, and they belong to women," Maloney told NBC News. "You don't see them trying to restrict men's access to Viagra or vasectomies, and they just do whatever they want. But they want to come in and dictate to women what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. It's outrageous. It's got to stop, and that’s what we are going to do."