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Progressives join new Alabama State House member in sharing abortion stories

FILE - Rep. Gloria Johnson, R-Knoxville, listens during a House Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Feb. 20, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Johnson, now running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Marsha Blackburn, has joined the growing ranks of progressive candidates choosing to tell their own abortion stories. They are doing so more frequently in states that have banned abortion in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/George Walker IV, file)
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AP
FILE - Rep. Gloria Johnson, R-Knoxville, listens during a House Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Feb. 20, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Johnson, now running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Marsha Blackburn, has joined the growing ranks of progressive candidates choosing to tell their own abortion stories. They are doing so more frequently in states that have banned abortion in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/George Walker IV, file)

A growing number of progressive politicians are choosing to tell their own abortion stories. The list includes newly elected Alabama State House member Marilyn Lands, who won a special election by focusing on reproductive rights. These candidates are are doing so more frequently in states that banned abortion after the Supreme Court's 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Democrats think that even in many strongly Republican states, voters support their view that such personal choices should be left to women to make for themselves. Democrats say showing voters how hard their own decisions were will help make that case. Recent elections suggest the fight for abortion rights may have real currency. Statewide ballot measures supporting reproductive rights have won big since the high court's ruling, including in GOP strongholds such as Kansas and Kentucky.

Reproductive rights supporters celebrated last month after Lands won a special election in Alabama, claiming a legislative seat long held by Republicans. Alabama currently bans abortion at all stages of pregnancy, with almost no exception.

Lands made abortion rights central to her campaign, releasing a video in which she disclosed having an abortion after testing determined that her baby had a genetic disorder and could not survive.

Lands made a comparison to Alyssa Gonzales, a woman denied the same care just months after Dobbs despite having almost the same diagnosis as Lands. Gonzales traveled 10 hours out of state to Washington, D.C., to get the help she needed.

"Our media consultant did say, 'Marilyn, you don't have to do this, the issue is compelling enough on its own,'" Lands said. "I think they wanted to be sure that I really was comfortable with it, and I was. ... It was absolutely the right thing to do."

For decades, only three people knew Gloria Johnson had had an abortion.

But a year of watching women and doctors agonize under Tennessee's strict abortion ban kicked up a fire in the longtime Democrat. She watched in dismay as her Republican colleagues in the General Assembly dismissed concerns that the law was harming women. Many GOP lawmakers argued that only on rare occasions was an abortion needed to save a life.

So without telling her legislative staff or family in advance, the then-60-year-old state representative stood before a Republican-controlled House panel in March 2023 and testified about the abortion she had at age 21. She made the decision to have an abortion, she said, as a newly married college student after being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. That would likely have killed her if she did nothing, but might have harmed the baby if Johnson got the treatment she needed to save her own life.

"The reality is that we're in a situation where people act like stories like mine are one in a million when actually they happen every day," Johnson said in a recent interview, nearly a year after her dramatic testimony.

Johnson, now running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Marsha Blackburn, has joined the growing ranks of progressive candidates choosing to tell their own abortion stories. They are doing so more frequently in states that have banned abortion in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Democrats think that even in many strongly Republican states voters support their view that such personal choices should be left to women to make for themselves and that showing voters how hard their own decisions were will help make that case.

Recent elections suggest the fight for abortion rights may have real currency. Statewide ballot measures supporting reproductive rights have won big since the high court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, including in GOP strongholds such as Kansas and Kentucky.

For the most part, though, election victories have been slower to come for pro-choice candidates than when they are framed in a ballot measure. Measures legalizing recreational marijuana and Medicaid expansion also have won in conservative states but have not translated into many wins for candidates supporting them.

That leaves political experts watching races such as Johnson's Tennessee Senate bid to see if telling more personal stories will make a difference.

"If these candidates continue to be successful, it'll just once again show us that people are unhappy with state abortion policies but also that abortion is a big enough deal to them that they may vote for someone they may not otherwise," said Mary Ruth Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.

Heather Williams, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, said Lands' victory was a "political earthquake in Alabama."

"In red states, when candidates share these stories, it helps voters see there's someone championing the things they care about, who shares their experiences," she said.

While the majority of candidates and lawmakers who have shared abortion stories have been Democrats, Republican Sam Brown has chosen to revisit his wife's abortion as he vies for a U.S. Senate seat in Nevada. Earlier this year, Brown's wife talked candidly about the abortion she had before the two met. Brown said he would oppose a federal abortion ban while supporting Nevada's current law protecting the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks — roughly the standard nationally under Roe v. Wade.

Even before the right to abortion was struck down, there were hints that politicians' personal stories could make a difference.

In Georgia, Democrat Shea Roberts first ran for the state House in 2018 but lost to Republican Deborah Silcox. In 2020, Roberts shared her abortion story while running once again and won.

Roberts started talking about her decision to terminate her nonviable pregnancy — first before small groups of voters and then at news conferences. She said she owed her win to that decision.

"I regretted not being braver the first time around," she said.

At the federal level, Democratic Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Barbara Lee of California have shared their abortion stories openly since speaking about them at a House committee hearing in 2021 on abortion rights.

And as the future of Roe v. Wade hung in the balance after the Supreme Court's draft ruling leaked, Democratic Reps. Marie Newman of Illinois and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin also spoke openly about their abortions.

In Arizona, state Senator Eva Burch told fellow lawmakers from the Senate floor last month that she was going to get an abortion because her pregnancy was no longer viable. In a nearly 10-minute speech, the 43-year-old first-term lawmaker, who previously worked as a nurse practitioner at a women's health clinic, described a "rough journey" with fertility and an earlier miscarriage.

Burch criticized Arizona's restrictions as out of touch, saying state law requires an ultrasound that her doctor did not order. She also said she was given bad information about alternative treatments.

"I think a lot of people wish they could tell their story, but either they don't have the platform or they don't want to and they shouldn't have to," Burch said later. "If that's something that I can do for people, I'm going to do it in whatever capacity I possibly can."

In Wisconsin, Doctor Kristin Lyerly, an obstetrician and gynecologist who performs abortions, entered the race last week for an open congressional seat in a Republican district. Minnesota State Senator Kelly Morrison, a practicing OB-GYN, is running for Congress and promoting her support for abortion rights.

Back in Tennessee, which severely limits exemptions to its abortion ban, Gloria Johnson isn't the only candidate sharing her story.

At 19 weeks pregnant, Allie Phillips learned she had a nonviable pregnancy, but she did not meet the requirements to receive an abortion in the state despite the many complications she was having. Her account of traveling outside Tennessee with her husband to get the services she needed has circulated widely on social media.

Phillips has since joined a group of women challenging the legality of Tennessee's abortion law. She announced her candidacy for the state House against a Republican who she says played down her story when she met with him last year.

Johnson says reproductive rights are a priority for Democrats and Republicans. She knows Tennessee voters have not elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly 20 years but thinks being open will help her connect with anyone who cares about how women are treated.

"I'm absolutely setting myself apart. I'm letting you know that I'm a woman who cares about women's reproductive choice," she said. "To me it's about equality and rights."

 

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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