‘Abortion absolutely is healthcare’: U.S. House panel told as GOP pursues nationwide ban

‘Who are you going to be?’ Kelsey Leigh, a Pittsburgh resident, asked lawmakers. ‘Will you sit in judgment of people who are pregnant without knowing them or their circumstances? Or will you listen … and be the compassion our country so desperately needs right now?’

By: - September 29, 2022 2:42 pm

Kelsey Leigh, a Pittsburgh woman who had an abortion at 20 weeks and who now works with people seeking abortion care, addresses the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform during a hearing on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 (Screen Capture).

A nationwide abortion ban would widen disparities in healthcare and drive up the maternal mortality rate, particularly among Black women, physicians and advocates told a U.S. House panel on Thursday.

“Women’s progress has always been inextricably linked with the ability to control our own bodies,” Jocelyn Frye, the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, told members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform during a three-hour-plus hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building. 

“Access to abortion has been pivotal to women and all those who give birth,” Frye continued. “Research shows that restricting abortion impacts the health, safety, and welfare of people who are pregnant.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill that would ban abortion nationwide at 15 weeks, superseding state-level restrictions, and further roiling the debate over abortion access in the wake of a June U.S. Supreme Court decision toppling Roe v. Wade.

Graham’s bill came even as Republican-controlled legislatures across the country have been moving to impose strict abortion bans, forcing pregnant people to flee across state lines to seek care. Some of Graham’s fellow Republicans have distanced themselves from the proposal.  

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“How do abortion bans disproportionately impact communities of color that are often left behind?” U.S. Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, asked Frye.

“What we really want is the ability for every person, especially Black and brown people, and people of color, to have the access to the healthcare they need,” Frye responded. “Abortion bans take the decisions out of their hands. It makes them rely on systems that have perpetuated disparities for decades.”

‘Who are you going to be?’

One witness told lawmakers they face a binary choice on abortion rights.

“Who are you going to be?” Kelsey Leigh, a Pittsburgh resident, asked the panel. “Will you sit in judgment of people who are pregnant without knowing them or their circumstances? Or will you listen … and be the compassion our country so desperately needs right now?”

Leigh, who had an abortion at 20 weeks after an ultrasound revealed conditions in her unborn son she deemed “incompatible with life,” and who now works for the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in Pittsburgh, where she speaks with people seeking abortion care, told lawmakers that the facility has been inundated with calls from people in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia, which have strict abortion bans.

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“We are the closest clinic for 70 percent of Ohio,” Leigh told U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “Two-thirds of the people I talk to every day are from Ohio and West Virginia. They are organizing rides and childcare.”

‘Turning the clock back’

In opening remarks, the panel’s chairperson, U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., argued that Republicans on Capitol Hill and across the country, are “turning the clock back on women’s rights,” referencing a recent court ruling in Arizona reinstating a 158-year-old law that bans virtually all abortions. 

“Let that sink in, a law passed more than a century ago, before women had the right to vote,” Maloney said. 

Republicans on the House panel repeatedly charged that majority Democrats were using the hearing to make a play for votes ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. They also repeated the false claim that a bill codifying Roe v. Wade into federal law would allow abortion until birth. 

“Let’s be clear on what today’s hearing is about – it’s not about advocating for the best interests of women. It’s an effort to institute a system of taxpayer-funded abortion on demand,” U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, said. “They do so under the guise of hearings like this one, to perpetrate fear and to achieve their far-left agenda.”

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc, echoed the sentiment, arguing that “the idea that there is a constitutional right to abortion is not true. We have an era in which judges go to law school and find ways to get around the constitution. A bill that recently passed the House would make abortion legal all the way to birth. Other countries have prohibitions on that.”

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A PolitiFact analysis in June ruled that claim “mostly false.” 

The bill “permits abortion up until delivery, but only if it is deemed necessary to protect the life of the patient. It does not explicitly require states to keep the procedure legal in all cases past the point of fetal viability,” according to PolitiFact. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., hearkened back to that constitutional argument.

“The Supreme Court has made the decision. That is really what the problem is here. There’s a question that needs to be answered: Who gets to decide? Does the government get to decide whether and when a woman can be pregnant? Or is that a personal healthcare decision that should be made and left to the woman, her family, her faith, and her doctor?”.

GOP lawmakers also rejected arguments by witnesses on the panel that safe and legal abortion is a critical component of self-determination by pregnant people as they try to make the best decision for themselves and their families.

“This extreme bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, would place the United States in the company of countries such as China and North Korea,” U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said. “It is the Democrats who hold extreme positions on abortion, and they are contrary to the will of most Americans. It’s one thing to determine what happens in your own body. It’s another [thing] to determine the fate of the unborn child you are carrying.”

More from Pennsylvania

Looking across his state’s border into Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., referred to recent stories about GOP gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano who told a radio interviewer in 2019 that women who violated a six-week ban bill he was then sponsoring should be charged with murder. 

“They’ve grown a little more reticent and evasive about wanting to ban abortion everywhere in the country since the people of Kansas rejected a ban,” Raskin said, referring to an August vote that saw Kansas voters resoundingly reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would have stripped residents of abortion rights. 

“It seems like the cat’s got their tongue now that they’ve struck the rock. And the rock is the women who are standing up as first-class citizens of America,” Raskin said. 

Medical professionals who addressed the House panel Thursday faced repeated questions from GOP lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., on whether abortion care could be classified as healthcare. 

Abortion is not healthcare. Its goal is to kill the fetus,” Dr. Monique Chireau Wubbenhorst, an obstetrician-gynecologist, speaking at the behest of the panel’s Republicans, said. 

Dr. Nisha Verma, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, countered that Wubbenhorst’s opinion is not the prevailing view among obstetricians/gynecologists and their professional organizations.

“The overwhelming consensus is that abortion absolutely is healthcare,” Verma said.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.