Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush was trying to regain her composure in her congressional office.
Just moments earlier, the former nurse and activist had, in a House hearing, shared her personal story of her sexual assault and subsequent abortion for the first time.
“I was reading really slowly because I was having trouble just even opening my mouth. It was just very hard. It felt like something was pressing down on me,” Bush recounted to NPR. “It was really difficult because I’m telling this story before the world.”
She had not spoken publicly about what happened to her until this week, when the House Oversight Committee hosted a hearing Thursday on abortion rights in the wake of a new restrictive law in Texas dramatically limiting access to the procedure.
During her testimony, Bush described how she was raped on a church trip when she was 17. When she realized she might be pregnant, she said she felt “broken.”
“But I knew I had options,” she said.
She found a clinic, and learned she was nine weeks pregnant.
At the clinic, she said she heard white patients her same age say they were told they should give up their babies for adoption, but Bush said she was told she would end up on food stamps and welfare if she had hers.
“It worsened my shame,” she said.
At one point in her testimony, Bush spoke to Black women and girls. “We have nothing to be ashamed of, we live in a society that has failed to legislate love and justice for us, so we deserve better, we demand better, we are worthy of better,” she said.
The committee also heard from Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and California Reps. Barbara Lee and Judy Chu, along with Republican lawmakers opposed to abortion rights, and feminist activist Gloria Steinem.
Lee described her decision to get an abortion in the 1960s, when she was a high-performing 16-year-old student. Her mother helped her find a doctor to perform the procedure outside of the country since abortion wasn’t available in California.
“I’m sharing my story, even though I truly believe it is personal and really nobody’s business and certainly not the business of politicians,” said Lee, who is now a mother to two sons and has five grandchildren. “But I’m compelled to speak out because of the real risks of the clock being turned back to those days before Roe v. Wade, to the days when I was a teenager and had a back-alley abortion in Mexico.”
It marked one of many emotional moments on Thursday.
“This is the place where that happens”
Bush told NPR her staff and familiar faces on the committee, like Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Jimmy Gomez, helped give her resolve to tell her story.
“It was in this official setting, where it felt like, whatever I say, it has to produce,” said Bush, who is now a mother to two. “It has to produce something else versus it just being our stories, putting out this narrative. It has to turn into something, because this is the place where that happens.”
Her story and others, Bush said, are part of what she hopes will become a wave of support that can reverse momentum on the political right to bring new restrictive measures like the Texas law to more states around the country.
Although the Democratic-led House passed legislation last week to codify women’s rights under the landmark Roe v. Wade case, it does not have a forward path in the evenly split Senate. The Supreme Court did not block the Texas law, either.
“[My mother] chose life”
Bush said it was difficult to hear how North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx, a member of the oversight committee, characterized abortion.
“It appears that the purpose of this hearing is to normalize the destruction of unborn babies, which is called abortion,” Foxx said during the hearing. “Let me say at the outset that I feel profound sorrow for any woman who believes that she must destroy her unborn child. And I certainly extend that to our colleagues here today.”
Republican Congresswoman Kat Cammack of Florida testified about her own experience as the daughter of a woman who was advised to have an abortion. Cammack has said abortion should only be limited to extreme cases.
“I would not be here had it not been for the very brave choice that my mother made 33 years ago,” she said during the hearing.
In a pointed moment during the hearing, Cammack referenced her colleagues who shared their choice to get abortions.
“Despite everything, [my mother] chose life. She did something that many of my colleagues here could have done,” Cammack said.
As Bush walked to leave the hearing, she and Cammack embraced. Bush told NPR that one piece of Cammack’s testimony stayed with her.
“Her mother made a choice,” she said. “She had the option to go with what was recommended to her or to do what she wanted to do. That’s what we’re saying: It’s your choice to make.”
Bush said Cammack thanked her for sharing her story.
“She talked about how she felt for me, having gone through that sexual assault,” Bush said. “And the thing is what we talked about was how we both feel that we want to take care of our communities, we both want to see change happen.”
“I did choose life”
As Bush reflected on her testimony, she remembered the resolve she had to go forward with her abortion and what it meant for her life going forward.
“I know, in my situation, I did choose life, because I knew that I could not take care of a child. I knew I couldn’t,” she said. “So was I supposed to put a child in harm’s way, when I knew that I mentally and physically, emotionally was not able to take care of a child?”
The progressive Bush said there’s a hypocrisy inherent in this debate in the country’s apparatus for caring for life, when there are concerns over services to help those in need. She argues that also includes investments to ensure access to health care, good air quality, environmental justice and food, as well as addressing concerns such as the border, and in places where lives are at risk.
“You don’t have to be a Democrat, you don’t have to be a Republican. You have to love and respect humanity. And humanity means every single person from the least in our community,” Bush said, her voice rising with emotion. “And I know, because I’m someone who has been the least.”
At the end of her testimony, Bush said she was thinking of other Black women and girls who may go through similar experiences.
“I need them to know that they can make the decision for their own bodies. And they don’t have to walk in shame, or deal with whatever judgment comes before them, that they are strong, that they are powerful, that they are worthy,” Bush said, tearing up. “I have to be clear about speaking up for them. Because if not, who else speaks up for us? And when people don’t speak up for us, we continue to die at alarming rates.”