Progressive candidates are increasingly sharing their own abortion stories after Roe’s demise

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For decades, only three people knew that Gloria Johnson had an abortion.

But a year of watching women and doctors suffer under Tennessee’s strict abortion ban has inflamed the longtime Democrat. She watched in dismay as her Republican colleagues in the General Assembly dismissed concerns that the law would harm women. Many Republican lawmakers argued that only in rare cases was an abortion necessary to save a life.

So without prior notice to her legislative staff or family, 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. abortion, she said, as a newlywed college student after being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. That likely would have cost her her life if she hadn’t done anything, but it could have harmed the baby if Johnson got the treatment she needed to save her own life.

β€œThe reality is that we are in a situation where people are behaving as if stories like mine are one in a million, when in reality they happen every day,” Johnson said in a recent interview, almost a year after her dramatic testimony .

Johnson, who is 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 often in states that have banned abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Democrats believe that even in many heavily Republican states, voters support their position that such personal choices should be left for women to make for themselves and that showing voters how difficult their own decisions were will help settle the case.

Recent elections suggest that the fight for abortion rights may have real value. Statewide ballot measures in support of reproductive rights have made major gains since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, including in Republican strongholds like Kansas and Kentucky.

Reproductive rights advocates celebrated last month after Marilyn Lands won a special election in Alabama, claiming a legislative seat long held by Republicans. Alabama currently bans abortion at all stages of pregnancy, almost without exception.

Lands made abortion rights central to her campaign, releasing a video in which she revealed that she had an abortion after tests showed her baby had a genetic condition and could not survive.

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

β€œOur media consultant did say, ‘Marilyn, you don’t have to do this, the issue is compelling enough in itself,’” Lands said. β€œI think they wanted to make sure I was really comfortable with it, and I was. … It was absolutely the right thing to do.”

But for the most part, electoral victories come more slowly for pro-choice candidates than when they are framed on a ballot measure. Measures legalizing recreational marijuana and expanding Medicaid have also won in conservative states, but have not translated into many victories for candidates who support them.

That leaves political experts looking at races like Johnson’s Senate bid in Tennessee to see if telling more personal stories will make a difference.

β€œIf these candidates continue to be successful, it will show us once again that people are dissatisfied with the state’s abortion policy, but also that abortion is so important to them that they can vote for someone they might not otherwise have,” Mary said . Ruth Ziegler, law professor at the University of California, Davis.

Heather Williams, chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, said Lands’ victory was a “political earthquake in Alabama.”

β€œWhen candidates in red states share these stories, voters can see that there is someone standing up for the things they care about, sharing their experiences,” she said.

Although the majority of candidates and lawmakers who have shared abortion stories are Democrats, Republican Sam Brown has chosen to revisit his wife’s abortion as he competes for a U.S. Senate seat in Nevada. Earlier this year, Brown’s wife spoke 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 that protects the right to abortion up to 24 weeks β€” about the national standard under Roe v. Wade.

Even before abortion rights were abolished, there was evidence 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 again while running and won.

Roberts began talking about her decision to terminate her unviable pregnancy β€” first to small groups of voters and then at press conferences. She said she owes her victory to that decision.

β€œI regretted not being braver the first time,” she said.

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

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

In Arizona, Sen. Eva Burch told fellow Senate lawmakers last month that she would have 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 at a women’s clinic, described a “tough journey” with fertility and a previous miscarriage.

Burch criticized Arizona’s restrictions as having no impact and said state law requires an ultrasound that her doctor did not order. She also said she was given bad information about alternative treatments.

β€œI think a lot of people wish they could tell their story, but they don’t have the platform, or they don’t want to and they shouldn’t,” Burch said later. β€œIf that’s something I can do for people, then I’m going to do it in whatever capacity I can.”

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

Back in Tennessee, where exceptions to the abortion ban are being severely limited, Gloria Johnson isn’t the only candidate sharing her story.

When she was 19 weeks pregnant, Allie Phillips learned she had a non-viable pregnancy, but she did not meet the requirements to have an abortion in the state, despite the many complications she had. Her story of how she traveled outside Tennessee with her husband to get the services she needed has been widely shared 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 said downplayed her story when she met him last year.

Johnson says reproductive rights are a priority for Democrats and Republicans. She knows Tennessee voters haven’t elected a statewide Democrat in nearly two decades, but thinks being open will help her connect with anyone who cares about the way women are treated.

β€œI definitely distinguish myself. β€œI’m letting you know that I am a woman who cares about women’s reproductive choices,” she said. β€œFor me it’s about equality and rights.”


Fernando reported from Chicago.