In the end, Reps. Gwen Moore (D-WI) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) probably didn’t sway any votes by sharing their personal stories on the House floor on Thursday night. On Friday, 240 of 241 House Republicans voted to strip Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading provider of reproductive health care, of government funding.
Nevertheless, when Moore stood up to talk about being an 18-year-old with an unplanned pregnancy, and Speier described having a second-trimester abortion after a wanted pregnancy went wrong, the effect was electrifying. With their candor, the two congresswomen inspired women all over the country and pierced through the sanctimonious abstractions dominating the debate. At least half of women have an unintended pregnancy at some point in their lives, and nearly a third have an abortion. Yet even as politicians argue about these women’s lives and choices and futures, the women themselves remain faceless and voiceless. Moore and Speier changed that.
Neither had planned to put their personal lives on the line. Moore wasn’t intending to speak at all, but as she listened to Republican congressman line up to denounce Planned Parenthood, “I just couldn’t resist letting them know that they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about,” she said in an interview.
Speier said her office has been flooded with supportive emails and phone calls, “people crying on the phone, probably with their own experience playing out in their minds.”
None of Planned Parenthood’s $363 million in federal funding pays for abortion; it goes toward family planning, cancer screening, and other reproductive health care. Yet abortion dominated the debate. “I don’t believe that God can continue to bless America while we’re killing 4,000 babies every day,” said Georgia Republican Paul Broun.
Several Republicans attacked Planned Parenthood as racist, a common antiabortion canard. “My wife and I have four adopted children, and they’re watching tonight,” said Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp, adding that his children “come from a group of children the history of Planned Parenthood has targeted: minorities.”
Hearing the Republicans pontificate, Moore said, “I was filled with rage. These same people who accuse Planned Parenthood of ‘targeting’ African-American children, they care about you only while you’re in the womb. The minute you crown, you’re on your own.”
Taking the floor, she began in a wry voice, “I am really touched by the passion of the [opposition] to want to save black babies. I can tell you, I know a lot about having black babies. I’ve had three of them. And I had my first one when I was 18 years old… An unplanned pregnancy.” She described going into labor on New Year’s Eve in the first hours of 1970, and lacking even a dime to call an ambulance from a pay phone. She talked about cuts to welfare programs and education, “a public policy that has treated poor women and children who have not had the benefit of Planned Parenthood with utter contempt.”
Though she didn’t say so on Thursday, Moore had been bound for Radcliffe, then the women’s counterpart to Harvard, when she found herself pregnant. Instead, she ended up on welfare. She was eventually able to go to college and build a life for herself, but as she points out, even the meager programs that helped her have since been gutted or eliminated. “It is important for women to have a choice, to have an opportunity to plan their families,” she said. “Because if they don’t, the Republicans have said this is an ownership society. You are on your own, and they’re going to begrudge that child everything, from WIC”—the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program—“to a Pell Grant to health insurance.”
Rep. Jackie Speier found Moore’s story powerful, but she had no intention of putting herself out there in the same way. Then, as the evening went on, she listened to New Jersey Republican Chris Smith as he read a long description of a second-trimester termination. The excerpt came from a book by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who, after being disciplined for her job performance, turned against the organization and became a heroine of the antiabortion movement, and it was deliberately grisly.
Suddenly, Speier was overwhelmed. And so, when it was her turn on the floor, she said, “Mr. Chairman, I had really planned to speak about something else, but the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots, because I’m one of these women he spoke about just now.” She described how her own pregnancy had gone wrong at 17 weeks, when the fetus moved into her cervix. “[T]hat procedure that you just talked about was a procedure that I endured… But for you to stand on this floor and to suggest as you have that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcome or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous,” she said.
Speier has only been in Congress for three years, but she said in an interview that after the speeches were over, “one member said to me that we really haven’t had a debate like this for a long time on the House floor.” Personal stories, she said, “are compelling, and get through the noise of just reading grotesque, inflammatory prose from a book.” Her office has been flooded with supportive emails and phone calls, “people crying on the phone, probably with their own experience playing out in their minds.”
She said she hopes that women will be motivated to make sure that the attack on Planned Parenthood is stopped in the Senate. “I think what has happened is there’s been an awakening in America of women who have thought for the longest time that their reproductive health experiences are private and they would have access to resources, and now are questioning that,” she said.
At the end of the debate on Thursday night, the two women embraced. “I just held on to her and gave her a big hug,” said Moore. “I’m so proud of her for just sharing, and giving her heart and soul. That’s what people need to see and hear. This is not just us droning on from talking points. These are people’s real lives.”
Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.