Washington State Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal recently came to The Riveter Capitol Hill for a frank talk about abortion on the topic of, “Your Voice, Your Choice.”
In case you missed it: Last month, Jayapal wrote a moving Op-Ed for The New York Times titled “The Story of My Abortion,” that detailed her decision not to have a second child after a difficult first pregnancy (for both mother and child). The Congresswoman came to The Riveter Capitol Hill to continue the conversation.
Moderated by Tiffany Hankins, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, the event also featured Beth Vial, a Northwest Abortion Access fund board member; Erin Jorgensen, the communications director at Shout Your Abortion; and The Riveter’s own Jodi-Ann Burey, the senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The panel lasted an hour and a half and featured a Q/A with Hankins and Jayapal, as well as three first-person accounts of abortions from Vial, Jorgensen, and Burey.
Jayapal told the crowd that sharing her story was a way to not just be empowered in your own message, but to encourage others to feel strong enough to come forward with their own stories. As Jayapal said, “When you tell the story—and I felt it with this issue as well, but I’ve certainly seen it in all of our organizing trainings and everything we’ve done—people feel empowered when they don’t feel like they have to hide it,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t tell these stories because they’re afraid of what happens. They’re afraid of how they’re going to be seen. They’re afraid of talking about it.” But, she said, telling the story is also “a freeing experience. And it really can be very empowering for people who engage in that.”
As members of the LBGTQ community learned in the last few decades, telling their stories and coming out helped other people better understand their struggle. Many abortion stories are still deeply rooted in shame and guilt, but, as Jayapal and the others pointed out, they shouldn’t be: Abortion is a public health issue.
As Hankins said at the outset of the event, “The personal is still political. That’s a rallying call that we’ve been hearing since the ’60s. A feminist rallying call that rings really true in moments like this, moments when abortion bans are sweeping states across the country in an attempt to directly challenge Roe vs. Wade.” She continued: “The threats to Roe vs. Wade have never been more palpable. So what do moments like this ask of us? I think that that’s why that rallying call really sticks with me. These moments, they ask of us to reflect, “What will we do? What will we say? This is our time, this is our moment to rise up, to resist, to refuse to go back to the days of illegal abortion.”
Jayapal told the story of giving birth to Janak—how the baby was born premature, weighing only one pound, fourteen ounces. Jayapal had to have an emergency C-section, and the complications that followed, for herself and the baby, were myriad. She was diagnosed with post-partum depression years later, and Janak had many health problems after birth. “It was just an incredibly difficult birth,” in Jayapal’s retelling. When she became pregnant again, it was soon after she had gotten divorced and found a new partner, but she realized the time wasn’t right and that she should get an abortion.
“These shouldn’t have to be traumatic stories in order to make the case for the right to have an abortion. It’s simply the exercise of the constitutional right that every pregnant person should have.”– Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal
Though Jayapal said her decision was traumatic for her—she wanted a baby—she emphasized that not all abortion stories are traumatic. “It isn’t always difficult, and I made it very clear in my piece that these shouldn’t have to be traumatic stories in order to make the case for the right to have an abortion,” she said. “It’s simply the exercise of the constitutional right that every pregnant person should have.”
That was a prevailing theme of the evening—that getting an abortion should be no more shameful or difficult than showing up at the ER to get stitches on a sliced finger. The stories that Jorgenson, Vial, and Burey told accentuated this point.
Erin Jorgenson read an excerpt from her story from the book, Shout Your Abortion, that highlighted Jayapal’s point: “My abortions were neither terribly difficult nor easy. They were just a part of my life as a person who had sex, who has a working reproductive system, and whose life was sometimes complicated,” she said.
Jodi-Ann Burey’s story ended with the declaration that everything that “happened to me was super normal,” she said, of getting pregnant as a teenager. “Some kids have sex. And it’s the stigma, and the challenges accessing healthcare options that create these moments of major life choices so young. And so, if and when I get pregnant again, I hope I have a daughter, so I can teach her about autonomy, pleasure, self-worth, and self-love.”
Beth Vial read her piece about getting a later term abortion and how she ended up in that position in the first place—a body that doesn’t menstruate like clockwork, a negative home pregnancy test, and a wild goose chase to find a clinic with availability that didn’t push anti-choice narratives on her like one crisis pregnancy center did, projecting images of her ultrasound on the wall against her will, telling her she was 16 weeks along, and taunting her with remarks like, “‘Let’s see if the head is still attached.’”
“When I was finally able to leave, they informed me that I was 16 weeks along,” she read. “I gathered my things and told them that I wanted an abortion. They insisted it was too dangerous, but I knew I was being lied to. I called the closest hospital and made an appointment, was able to make it for two days later. It’s there I found out I was not 16 weeks, but 26 weeks along. I was completely shocked, to say the least.”
Though she was in Oregon, she had to fly out of state to New Mexico to get an abortion. After culling together funds from the “Northwest Abortion Access Fund, the National Abortion Federation, couple family members, and two particularly generous friends,” she said she was able to raise the money to get her abortion. She almost didn’t make the 28-week cutoff.
Vial’s story highlighted the crisis that is created when abortion access is restricted.
That very crisis is what drove Jayapal to write her piece for the Times. “The reason I felt compelled to write the piece was because of the abortion bans that I’d been watching passing, and my own experience on the Judiciary Committee last year when Republicans were in the majority. Steve King, Republican from Iowa is the head of the Constitution Committee, and held a hearing on the 12-week abortion ban, and actually put up a video that was not twelve weeks,” she said. “And anybody who had had a baby would know that that was not twelve weeks, but it masqueraded as twelve weeks. And he and a whole bunch of women who were in white who were sitting there, were kind of waving at the fetus and saying, ‘Hello. There’s little Johnny waving his arm.’ It was really horrendous.”
“There is nothing that we have ever achieved that is meaningful progress, whether it’s the right for women to vote, whether it’s to send a person to the moon, whether it’s to end slavery — none of those things were achieved easily or overnight.”– Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal
As one of the most vocal progressive politicians in Congress, Jayapal said, she realized, “I just need to use this platform that I’ve been given to the maximum extent.”
Jayapal took a few questions from the audience—including one from a woman who asked if Seattle could fund abortions the same way New York City has, and how to motivate lawmakers: (Jayapal: “You make it into a competition. “New York City did this. I thought Seattle was the most progressive place in the country. What do you mean, Seattle, we haven’t done this yet?”)
The night ended on a high note, with a call to arms from Jayapal, and a standing ovation for all: “There is nothing in this world that is difficult to achieve, that has happened overnight. And there is nothing that we have ever achieved that is meaningful progress, whether it’s the right for women to vote, whether it’s to send a person to the moon, whether it’s to end slavery. None of those things were achieved easily or overnight,” she said in her closing remarks.
“But you know what? I believe we are in this for the long haul, because we believe that a different kind of world is possible, and not just possible but she is breathing at our doorstep. And it takes us to bring her forward and breathe her right into life in this country. And I think we can do that.”
Watch the full video from Congresswoman Jayapal’s event at The Riveter below.
Writer and editor Tricia Romano is the former editor-in-chief of The Stranger. She has been a staff writer at the Seattle Times and columnist for the Village Voice. She is currently working an oral history about the Village Voice for Public Affairs.