Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan, shared the story of his first wife’s life-saving abortion. He’s the first sitting senator in American history to publicly share a personal experience with abortion.

By Allie Strickler
October 13, 2020
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On October 12, Michigan Senator Gary Peters became the first sitting senator in American history to publicly share a personal experience with abortion.

In a groundbreaking interview with Elle, Peters, a Democrat who’s currently up for reelection, told the story of his first wife, Heidi’s abortion in the 1980s — an unthinkably “painful and traumatic” experience, Heidi herself said in a statement to Elle.

Recounting the experience to the magazine, Peters said Heidi was about four months pregnant (in her second trimester) when her water suddenly broke, leaving the fetus — and, soon after, Heidi — in a dangerous situation. Without amniotic fluid, the fetus wouldn’t be able to survive, Peters told Elle. So, the doctor told them to go home and “wait for a miscarriage to happen naturally,” Peters explained.

But Heidi never miscarried. When she and Peters returned to the hospital the next day for more guidance, their doctor recommended an abortion because the fetus still had no chance of survival, according to Peters’ account to Elle. Despite that recommendation, the hospital had a policy banning abortion. So, the doctor had no choice but to send Heidi and Peters home again to wait for a natural miscarriage. (Related: What Ob-Gyns Wish Women Knew About Their Fertility)

By the next day, Heidi still hadn’t miscarried, and her health was rapidly declining, Peters told Elle. They returned to the hospital again, and the doctor said that if Heidi didn’t have an abortion ASAP — the very procedure that her doctor told her he was banned from performing — she could lose her uterus. Or, if she developed a uterine infection, she could die of sepsis (an extreme bodily response to an infection that can quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death).

With Heidi’s life now at stake, their doctor appealed to the hospital’s board for an exception to their policy banning abortion. The appeal was denied, Peters told Elle. “I still vividly remember he left a message on the answering machine saying, ‘They refused to give me permission, not based on good medical practice, simply based on politics. I recommend you immediately find another physician who can do this procedure quickly,’” Peters recalled.

Fortunately, Heidi was able to receive life-saving treatment at another hospital because she and Peters were friends with the facility’s chief administrator, the magazine reported. “If it weren’t for urgent and critical medical care, I could have lost my life,” said Heidi.

So, why is Peters sharing this story now, nearly four decades later? “It’s important for folks to understand that these things happen to folks every day,” he told Elle. “I’ve always considered myself pro-choice and believe women should be able to make these decisions themselves, but when you live it in real life, you realize the significant impact it can have on a family.”

Peters said he also felt compelled to share this story now because the Senate is currently vetting President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett, a conservative nominee, has signed her name to multiple anti-abortion ads, and she’s called Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. in 1973, “barbaric.”

This is all to say that, if Barrett is confirmed to fill RBG’s seat, she could overturn Roe v. Wade or, at the very least, significantly limit access to (already-limited) abortion services — decisions “that will have major ramifications for reproductive health for women for decades to come,” Peters told Elle. “This is a pivotal moment for reproductive freedom." (Related: Why Abortion Rates Are the Lowest They've Been Since Roe v. Wade)

In a statement to Shape, Julie McClain Downey, senior director of communications for Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), said the PPAF is "thankful" that Senator Peters chose to share his family's story. "It is undoubtedly powerful that the day the Senate began hearings for a Supreme Court nominee hostile to Roe v. Wade, Gary Peters shared his family's deeply personal experience with abortion," says McClain Downey. "His story is a clear example of how vital access to abortion is. It's not enough that we protect legal abortion by defending Roe v. Wade, but every family deserves access to abortion care when they need it — no matter who they are or where they live. Lives depend on it."

Senator Peters is one among very few members of Congress who have publicly shared their personal experiences with abortion; others include Democratic House Representatives Jackie Speier of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Peters is not only the first sitting senator in the U.S. to share such a story, but apparently, he also appears to be the first male member of Congress to do so.

Fortunately, though, Senator Peters isn't the only man in public office to openly support a woman's right to choose. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, made waves on social media this week for a powerful statement he gave on “late-term” abortions back in 2019. ICYDK, “late-term” abortion is a phrase often used by anti-abortion extremists, but there is no precise medical or legal definition of the term. “The phrase ‘late-term abortion’ is medically inaccurate and has no clinical meaning,” Barbara Levy, M.D., vice president of health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), told CNN in 2019. “In science and medicine, it’s essential to use language precisely. In pregnancy, to be ‘late-term’ means to be past 41 weeks gestation, or past a patient’s due date. Abortions do not occur in this time period, so the phrase is contradictory.”

In reality, abortions usually happen much earlier in pregnancy. In 2016, 91 percent of abortions in the U.S. were performed at or before 13 weeks into pregnancy (the first trimester), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, in the same year, a mere 7.7 percent of abortions were performed between 14 and 20 weeks into pregnancy (the second trimester), and just 1.2 percent of abortions were performed at 21 weeks or later (late second trimester or early third trimester), according to the CDC.

In a recently resurfaced clip from a 2019 Fox News town hall event, Buttigieg, a then-Democratic presidential contender, was asked whether there should be any limits on a woman’s right to an abortion, regardless of the stage of pregnancy. He responded: “I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of who gets to draw the line, and I trust women to draw the line when it’s their own health.” (Related: How I Learned to Trust My Body Again After a Miscarriage)

When Buttigieg was pressed on the number of women who receive abortions in the third trimester, he noted that such cases are extremely rare in the overall rate of abortions in the U.S. “Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation,” added Buttigieg. “If it’s that late in your pregnancy, then almost by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry it to term. We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name. Women who have purchased a crib, families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or the life of the mother or viability of the pregnancy that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice.”

As awful as that choice is, Buttigieg continued, “that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.”

Truth is, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. That means millions of Americans know someone who has had an abortion, or they've had one themselves.

"It is only by sharing those stories, the way that Senator Peters and his ex-wife did so admirably, that we will bring humanity, empathy, and understanding to this normal, common healthcare service," says McClain Downey.

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