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Choosing to have an abortion in a back alley in Mexico as a teenager was a “personal and private” decision for California Rep. Barbara Lee, she says. But in the years before Roe v. Wade — the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide — leaving her home in El Paso, Texas, was her best option.
“As a teenager, there were very few options,” Lee said. “So I had to leave the country, had to go to Mexico to have an abortion, which was risky, because they weren't legal there either. Fortunately, my mother's friend knew a clinic, and yes, it was a clinic in a back alley that had a good reputation, and that's where I went. And fortunately I survived. But during that period, so many African American women died from septic abortions.”
Lee’s story dates back to the 1960s, before Roe v. Wade, when abortions were illegal except in cases where the mother's life was in danger, and were generally unsafe. The choice often came with a social taboo that left women seeking drastic measures to end a pregnancy.
“It was very difficult for me because of the stigma, the trauma, and it was no one else's business,” Lee emphasized. “And that's the point of the entire issue around Roe vs. Wade. It's an individual's personal decision that one must make about their health care, and it's their decision to have an abortion or not.”
Lee, the highest-ranking African American woman in Democratic leadership, serves as co-chair of the Policy and Steering Committee. She shared her story with Yahoo News on Tuesday, a day before the Senate was to vote on legislation to codify abortion rights into law.
“We're talking about the fact that women are going to have abortions, and we're fighting to make sure that they're safe and legal,” Lee said. “States are moving toward criminalizing women — which is atrocious — to criminalize a woman who makes a personal decision to have an abortion. I mean, this is very dangerous.”
The vote is a reaction to a leaked draft opinion obtained by Politico that suggests that the Supreme Court plans to overturn Roe v. Wade. The draft was written by Justice Samuel Alito and signed by four other conservative members of the high court.
In the 98-page draft decision on Mississippi’s strict new abortion law — which prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy — Alito called the Roe ruling “egregiously wrong from the start.”
“The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions,” he wrote.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights research group, about 1 in 4 American women obtain an abortion before age 45. The decision to strike down the ruling would allow individual states to restrict when and how women could terminate their pregnancies. Federal courts would no longer determine the rules’ legality. The group’s research also indicates that 26 states are likely to ban or restrict access to abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. So-called trigger laws, which would ban abortions almost immediately after Roe’s reversal, are already in place in 13 states.
“When you look at the states that have trigger laws in place and where in Mississippi, Texas, where they've all tried to ban abortions, you have large populations of African American women, Indigenous women, brown women and young women,” Lee said.
“So it's going to disproportionately impact African American women, because when you look at our wages, we’re at the lower end of the economic ladder. To travel to another state is going to be very difficult, because we don't have the money. So we won't be able to travel, [find] child care, losing our wages for a day or two, finding a hotel, just all of that is going to be so devastating. … We have to make sure that we use — right now — our anger and our outrage to organize politically.”
Thousands of abortion rights advocates have already taken to the streets to protest the Supreme Court decision expected in June, even rallying in front of the homes of Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Groups that advocate for reproductive rights — Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, UltraViolet and MoveOn — have also organized nationwide rallies that will be held in dozens of cities on May 14.
“This, I think, has galvanized so many people that the Republicans never knew were going to be galvanized,” Lee said, chuckling. “I think that we are seeing people coming together now to support people."
On Wednesday, the Senate is to vote on legislation to codify abortion rights into law. Lee emphasized the necessity of this type of federal protection for women, calling it “essential.” The Women’s Health Protection Act — legislation introduced by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. — would also bar restrictions to abortions including “mandatory waiting periods, biased counseling, two-trip requirements and mandatory ultrasounds.”
But Lee noted the obstacles ahead for Democrats.
“Unfortunately, we still have the filibuster,” she said. “The part of what is so upsetting to many is that we can't set aside the filibuster right now, not only for the Women's Health Protection Act, but for voting rights, for all of the issues that are taking away our fundamental, constitutional rights. And with regard to abortion, this is the first right that has ever been taken away from anyone. So this is why we have to try to make it a federal law.”
Democratic lawmakers in California, where Lee has represented the 13th District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1998, announced that they intend to “build a firewall” around reproductive rights, proposing a measure to enshrine a woman’s right to have an abortion in the state’s constitution, expanding access to reproductive health care and offering abortions to women who travel to California from other states.
“California is a very enlightened state, and we believe in the right to privacy,” Lee said. “So now the right to abortion, the governor supports it. I think it will become a constitutional amendment. It will have to go to the ballot, but California is a pro-reproductive-freedom state, and people support women's [right] to make decisions around their health care. And so I think we'll get that done.”
For now, abortions are still legal and clinics are still open, Lee said.
“What do you believe? What do you feel? Ultimately, it's your choice,” she said. “It's your decision. And that's liberty. It's about freedom, and that's what democracy is supposed to be about.”
Lee added that since opening up about her own experience as a young woman, she has received an outpouring of support.
“I find more men and women sharing stories with me that you would not believe,” she said. “Colleagues I've known 30 years, friends I've known forever, have shared their stories, but never publicly. So I think it's important for those who feel comfortable to do that, because you'll find that you're not alone — and, well, that's what I found out.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images