Six stories: Iowans showed why reproductive rights are essential

Few political issues evoke stronger emotions than abortion. Hundreds of activists on both sides of the issue came to the state capitol on February 25, when the Iowa House held a public hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment that would make future abortion bans immune from court challenge.

More than three dozen people spoke at the hearing, some fighting back tears as they described the life experiences that led them to either support reproductive rights or advocate for restricting women’s choices.

You can watch all of the testimony on the Iowa House Democrats video. Lots of speakers made a compelling case, drawing on their background as medical professionals, legal experts, activists, or clergy.

I want to focus on six speakers who discussed their own abortions and what influenced their choice. Although about one in four American women will terminate a pregnancy during their lifetimes, we don’t often hear directly from them. Understandably, many people are reluctant to speak publicly about such a controversial and personal topic.

I transcribed all remarks as delivered, with some annotations for clarity.

“I SEE WHAT YOU ARE DOING”

This wasn’t Amanda Acton’s first rodeo. She testified before Iowa House and Senate subcommittees when the legislature considered a 20-week abortion ban in 2017. (She told her story to Bleeding Heartland in more depth at that time.)

Hello, my name is Amanda Acton. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak once again, in opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment, HJR 2004, removing the fundamental right to abortion in Iowa.

I have spoken to this body before about my experience with abortion. But in case you weren’t there or if you’ve forgotten, I’d like to remind you what I said. I’ll remind you that I had to have an abortion at 23 weeks, because unlike the children you just heard about [alluding to premature babies described by the previous speaker, who supports banning abortion], my daughter didn’t have lungs. And it was the only choice I could make to save her [from] an agonizing, brief death.

I’ll remind you that although this was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through and I hope I’ll ever have to go through, my decision was never hard, because I knew that compassion was the only thing I could give her.

I’ll remind you that in making this decision, I trusted my personal faith, and my family and my doctor, but never once did I call up my representative or my neighbors and ask them what they thought I should do.

But most importantly, I want to remind you that having my abortion was the compassionate thing to do. It was the right thing to do for me. And what made it possible was a constitutionally guaranteed right to make the decision. Access to abortion when I needed it likely saved my life and it saved my future family.

Elected officials [in Iowa] have already taken away that right for people in my situation by restricting without exception abortion after 20 weeks. And I just want you to know that in my opinion, this is state-sanctioned torture and violence and a gross imposition of one set of deeply-held beliefs on another person.

Elected officials also attempted to put the lives and health of even more people like me at risk when [legislators] passed the six-week abortion ban [in 2018], despite objections from medical professionals, faith leaders, and Iowans. It was struck down because the Iowa Constitution protects our right to make medical decisions without interference.

I see what you are doing. You didn’t get your way the first time, so you are trying to once again usurp the will of the people to make an end run at our rights.

What I don’t understand is why. I don’t understand why you’re ignoring the will of the people, and why are you are legislating to a few fringe members of your party, and why you don’t have the courage to stand up to these bullies.

Acton’s time expired before she could finish her prepared remarks, but she provided the text to Bleeding Heartland. She would have concluded,

Senate President Charles Schneider told me he supports this proposed amendment because “the impact of [the Supreme Court] decision is immense. It effectively makes any abortion restriction difficult to sustain.”

And this is exactly why I believe you should oppose this legislation. Health care is a human right. Restrictions to medical decisions should absolutely be difficult to sustain. A restriction on health care is a restriction on our rights and should never be up to the will of a handful of politically-motivated elected officials. […]

I am asking you to be brave. Brave enough to listen and act with integrity. To choose courage over comfort. Do not pass HJR 2004.

“I WOULD HAVE RATHER DIED”

Frieda Bequeaith was one of several speakers who tried to convey to Republican lawmakers how desperate they were to end their unwanted pregnancies.

Hi. My name is Frieda Bequeaith. I was born and raised in Des Moines, and I’ve lived here most of my life. First, I want to thank you all for holding this public hearing because a constitutional amendment that interferes with personal health care deserves public input.

One in four women have abortions, and I am one of them. I became pregnant when I was fifteen years old after experiencing a sexual assault. I tried to reach out for help. I researched my options and I called a number that I found online. I now know that number belonged to an anti-choice organization.

They blamed me for what had happened to me. They made me feel ashamed and isolated, and they led me to believe I could not access a safe and legal abortion.

Still, I knew I could not carry the pregnancy to term, so I had an abortion without telling anyone. It was a horrible experience to go through alone, and I would never wish it on another person. I hope that your daughters, your granddaughters, or someone you love, never has to go through the isolation that I went through, or countless other Iowans have.

We know that taking away access to safe, legal abortion does not stop abortions from happening. This constitutional amendment only ensures that young women in our state will resort to extreme and dangerous measures. It will not prevent abortions. It will put Iowans in danger.

Working to reduce the stigma around abortion, providing comprehensive reproductive health education, and guaranteeing access to health care are the ways that we help pregnant people. And that’s what I do. I support youth education, and I support people through pregnancy as a doula.

Meanwhile, you’ve introduced HJR 2004. This bill is rooted in the idea that abortion is a shameful procedure, and we don’t help people by shaming them.

I will not let this legislation shame me, because I have worked hard to overcome the shame that I felt when I was fifteen years old. And I am proud of the strength that I found to make the right decision for myself. My abortion was mentally necessary, because I know I would not have survived that pregnancy. I would have rather died.

Right now I am ashamed. I am ashamed to be an Iowan. I am ashamed that since my abortion eight years ago, things have only gotten worse, that our government does not recognize our right to bodily autonomy. I am ashamed that I have to be here today, trying to convince you not to strip away that right.

Please do not put Iowans in danger. Please do not allow this constitutional amendment to pass. Vote no on HJR 2004.

“A WOUND THAT HAS NOW BEEN RIPPED OPEN ONCE AGAIN…”

Like Acton, Ruby Bodeker terminated a wanted pregnancy. (She is also the Democratic challenger in Iowa House district 75.)

Hello. My name is Ruby Bodeker. Thank you for allowing me to speak today against House Joint Resolution 2004.

I live in rural Benton County. I am a mother of four, a practicing Lutheran, and a person who values her fundamental human right to bodily autonomy.

On Good Friday, March 21, 2008, I found myself lying on an ultrasound table, a wand running across my more than 20-weeks-pregnant belly. I was pregnant for the third time–a pregnancy my husband and I very much wanted.

But the pregnancy was ending. I started bleeding the night before and the tech was having trouble locating a heartbeat. I was spiking a high fever. My mother was with me because my husband was away at school for his union apprenticeship.

We both knew the on-call OB-GYN that night–he attended the same Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as my mother. We also knew in principle he was against abortion. But first and foremost he was a physician–retired Army.

He made clear I was ill, the pregnancy was affecting my health and recommended I abort. He was kind, he was clear-eyed. He was my doctor.

I chose to abort a pregnancy of more than 20 weeks. I could have chosen to wait and see, as a nurse suggested, but with my fever spiking, waiting was not the best option.

On Good Friday, near midnight, I walked out of the hospital, holding my mother’s hand as snow gently fell around us, collecting on the trees. I remember thinking how beautiful the world was in spite of everything. And I never felt closer to God.

I still carry the dream from 2008 with me inside this box. The dreams my family lost. The pain I still feel today. A wound that has now been ripped open once again because of the actions of this legislature. The choice I made on Good Friday 2008 was my choice to make. And I would make it again in a heartbeat.

I ask that all members of the House, including my own male representative, vote against this overreaching constitutional amendment. It is not your job to take away Iowans’ rights.

As a woman of the Lutheran faith, I know angels still sing for me. I know I did nothing wrong. I accessed health care and I made a decision.

If you want to protect mothers, as is stated in this joint resolution, you might start by actually listening to them. All of them. And that includes me. We live here, too. Thank you for allowing me to speak.

“I’M HERE TODAY BECAUSE AN ABORTION SAVED MY LIFE”

Jennifer Leatherby’s anger was palpable as she explained what the constitutional amendment would mean to her.

My name is Jennifer Leatherby and I live in Des Moines. I’m here today because an abortion saved my life. I don’t say that lightly, because I know that I could be dead today without access to safe, legal abortion. The fact that extremist legislators would propose and let alone vote yes for an amendment that would put my life at risk, is truly dehumanizing.

My case is not special. I am one in four. I am one in four people who will choose an abortion in their lifetime. Many people, like myself, who have had abortions, also feel that their lives were saved in some way by having access to this medical procedure.

It’s a disgrace to the state of Iowa that myself and others like me should have to come here to defend our lives over and over again.

HJR 2004 risks the life, liberty, safety, and happiness of Iowans.

The text of this amendment states that Iowans shall have “No right to abortion or required public funding of abortion. To defend the dignity of all human life, and to protect mothers and unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the day of birth.”

As a person who would be considered “mother” if this amendment were to pass, I can promise you that losing access to abortion would, without a doubt, put the safety and dignity of my human life at risk.

It is no secret that abortion is always safer than childbirth, when considering the life of the pregnant person.

This amendment would force Iowans to remain pregnant, regardless of any dangerous complications that could risk their life or in the case of rape or incest.

HJR 2004 legalizes forced birth which is listed as a human rights violation by the United Nations. This amendment, if passed, could cause horrifying bloodshed among Iowans. This would harm Iowa’s families and undoubtedly, children would lose their mothers.

Iowans’ lives will literally be at risk. My liberty to decide if and when to have a child would be stripped away, my safety would be at risk, and my happiness would be diminished.

HJR 2004 was written by a group of religious extremists and has no place in Iowa’s constitution. Please vote no.

“YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO HEAR MY STORY TONIGHT”

Only a few people of color were among the speakers at the Iowa House hearing. Olivia Samples, who is African American, spoke broadly about how abortion bans affect survivors of violence, while also highlighting particular oppression Black women have faced.

Hello, I’m Olivia Samples. I live here in Des Moines. Thank you for giving me time to speak today. I will say I do not find joy in spending my Tuesday night with y’all, but I feel that I must in defense of my human rights.

I was raped in college. I had an abortion. It’s obviously much more complicated and nuanced than that, but I’m given three minutes to speak to this room of strangers about the worst moments of my life, and you do not deserve to hear my story tonight.

I’m more than the things that have happened to me. I own my own business as a doula, supporting families through the journey of pregnancy, labor, birth, and postpartum. I believe that pregnant people and the people who care for them should be supported as they bring new life into this world. It’s a sacred journey, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness it.

No one should be forced to carry a pregnancy, have labor, or become a parent before they choose. This bill forces people to carry unwanted pregnancies rather than respecting their human right to enthusiastically choose the glorious experience that pregnancy can and should be.

I also work for a statewide anti-violence coalition advocating for the needs of survivors of violent crime. Through my professional and personal lens, I can see that this bill would result in survivors carrying lifelong traumas that are inflicted on them by their elected officials.

Six years ago, someone made a choice to deny me my agency and enact violence upon my body. Tonight, you face the same choice. This bill is harmful to survivors of violence and creates barriers to their mental, physical, and overall well-being as they heal from the violence that they’ve experienced.

This bill states that there will be no public funding of abortions. However, in Iowa and across the United States, the Hyde Amendment of 1976 already prevents public funding for abortions. Your inclusion of this statement exposes your fundamental misunderstanding of this legislation and its impact on the people of Iowa.

Part of my story includes being denied the use of the Hyde Amendment, although I qualified [for Medicaid]. Abortion is among the most regulated medical procedures, and these regulations already prohibit people from escaping generational poverty, earning degrees, and obtaining wealth. Black women in this country have always endured the burden of reproductive exploitation. Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey were enslaved women who died for our foundation of modern gynecology.

This legislation exploits Iowans and forces pregnant folks to succumb to your extremist ideology. The most vulnerable people in our community will once again feel this burden the most.

I am not ashamed, but the people elected to uphold our rights to liberty, property, safety, and happiness ought to be. Circumventing our Supreme Court to enact your will is shameful. Wasting state resources and time while Iowans are in desperate need of resources for things like education, mental health care, and clean water is shameful. Demanding constituents of the emotional labor of defending their human rights is shameful.

We deserve better. We deserve protected access to safe, legal abortions. Please vote no on HJR 2004.

“YOU WOULD HAVE KILLED ME…I FEARED FOR MY LIFE WHILE PREGNANT”

Like Leatherby, Leah Vanden Bosch sought to convey how “dehumanizing” it is to recount “my most private, humiliating struggles,” all because Republicans are bent on limiting her choices.

My name is Leah Vanden Bosch, and I’m here with Planned Parenthood. I was born and raised in Iowa, and currently live in Norwalk. I grew up in a conservative, Christian Reformed home in Orange City, Iowa, and I am a person of faith. I needed to have an abortion a few years ago here in Des Moines, and because of my decision, I’ve been forced to retell my traumatic history of health care over and over again in front of various people in this room. I have risked everything to share my story.

Our Republican legislators, who have proven themselves to be anti-sexual and reproductive health care, have inflicted more pain into my life than I will give them the pleasure of describing, and I still show up to defend my truth. I would not be here without my abortion.

Complete strangers now know my most private, humiliating struggles. I’m not referencing my abortion, I’m talking about my suicide attempt, my eating disorder, my debilitating anxiety and depression, and the decade-long recovery that no one in this room knows anything about. It is dehumanizing for me to continue doing this. But I must, as some legislators clearly don’t understand how abortion is a medically necessary procedure, as it was for me.

I know your intent is to ban abortion, and I will continue fighting this every step of the way. I’m horrified a politician would try to control a pregnant stranger’s health care decisions. HJR 2004 does not protect Iowans. I am an Iowan. You would have killed me. You do not know the strength of my suicidal ideation, and you do not understand my eating disorder.

I feared for my life while pregnant, and I would have taken it if you forced that pregnancy on me. What qualifications can you show me that would give you any authority in a decision that affected all of my health care struggles?

This legislation is dangerous, it’s offensive, and it’s a total invasion of privacy. Your abortion restrictions have been proven to be unconstiutional, so now your new plan is to change the constitution. Let it be known that abortion would be the only medical procedure mentioned in our state’s constitution if this amendment is adopted.

As a resident of Iowa who required an abortion as part of my health care plan, I am deeply opposed to HJR 2004. Please understand there is no law that would have stopped me from terminating my pregnancy, and stop pushing this dangerous, terrifying piece of legislation forward. Please oppose HJR 2004.

Top image: Jennifer Leatherby speaks at an Iowa House public hearing on February 25. Cropped from a photo posted on Twitter by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa.

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