Congresswoman Reveals Having An Abortion
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
He's been all over the news for his angry rants against his bosses, but should he be? We're talking about actor Charlie Sheen. Later in the program, we'll hear from two people who know both the media and the world of addiction well. They are two veteran journalists who both battled drug addiction and lived to tell about it. That conversation is coming up a little later.
But first, another conversation that touches on one of this country's most sensitive and explosive issues, an issue that might be even more difficult in these politically polarized times. It was two weeks ago, just before midnight during a debate on the House floor, when federal funding for Planned Parenthood Federation of America - that's the group that provides contraception and abortion services, among other health services. New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith, a Republican, graphically described a certain abortion procedure during his allotted time to speak, chastising Planned Parenthood as child abuse incorporated, and by implication, the women who use its services.
In response, California congresswoman, Jackie Speier, rose and said this.
Representative JACKIE SPEIER (Democrat, California): You know, I had really planned to speak about something else, but the gentleman from New Jersey has just put my stomach in knots because I'm one of those women he spoke about just now.
MARTIN: You'll hear more of what Congresswoman Speier, who's a Democrat, said in just a couple of minutes, but she's with us now from her office on Capitol Hill. And I do think it's appropriate to advise that this conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners.
So with that being said, congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.
Rep. SPEIER: Oh, my pleasure, Michel.
MARTIN: So, congresswoman, I'm thinking about what that was like on the floor, and, you know, as you said in your, the comment that we just heard, you really had no intention of bringing this up. So why did you?
Rep. SPEIER: I was compelled to bring it up, because he was describing a procedure that I endured. He knew nothing about the procedure. He was talking in terms that didn't begin to explain the nature of the experience, and he certainly made it seem like somehow it was done without thought or without anguish. And I felt compelled to set the record straight.
MARTIN: How did you feel after you did?
Rep. SPEIER: I was trembling a little bit. And I was expecting maybe an onslaught of anti-choice, you know, fervor. But what has been so remarkable about the experience is that I have received thousands and thousands and thousands of emails and Facebook and Twitter responses and people stopping me in the grocery store and at the bank saying, thank you so much for doing this. Young women, old women, men, members of the House came up to me afterwards, and men said to me, you made me cry.
And I thought, for whatever reasons, this has really touched a chord among men and women who recognize full well the incredible support that family planning and particularly Planned Parenthood provides in terms of family planning services to women across this country. It is the source of health care for women who are employed without health insurance, who are unemployed, who are poor. It's where young women in college go to when they need birth control pills. And for it to be maligned as it was and misrepresented as it was, was just beyond the pale.
MARTIN: Presumably, you heard from people who agreed with your comments, but just did not feel moved themselves to speak up. Would that be accurate? I guess I'm interested in whether you heard from anybody who doesn't agree with your perspective.
Rep. SPEIER: Oh, of course. You know, there's always going to be those who disagree. I mean, that's part of a democracy, and I had people picketing outside my office. But it's like 99 percent of the people I've heard from have been so moved and so grateful that someone had spoken out on this. And, you know, if I could, I think the stories of women across this country who have gone through what I've gone through and other experiences, need to be told.
MARTIN: To that end, though, let's hear a little bit more about the conversation that went on on the floor. Again, we'll go back to Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey. He's a Republican. He was reading from a book, and he went into graphic detail about how certain procedures are performed. And he claimed that the budget and U.S. taxpayers are funding violence against children by helping to fund Planned Parenthood. This is what he had to say.
Representative CHRISTOPHER SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): Who we back, who we subsidize does matter - not just what, but who. Planned Parenthood does 330,000, more than 300,000 abortions each and every year. Each and every year. They are the largest provider, about a fourth of all the abortions in the United States. It is child abuse. It is time to take a second look at child abuse incorporated.
MARTIN: And you can hear that there's a lot of a buzz sort of on the background, a lot of conversations that are going on in the background. And then, again, this is what you had to say in response. Here it is.
Rep. SPEIER: I had a procedure at 17 weeks, pregnant with a child that had moved from the vagina into the cervix. And that procedure that you just talked about was a procedure that I endured. I lost a baby. But for you to stand on this floor and to suggest as you have that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.
MARTIN: I was wondering if you and Congressman Smith have had any further dialogue about this, since part of what you were saying is really don't know what this is like from the inside. And I was just wondering if you had had any further conversation?
Rep. SPEIER: No, I have not. That's part of the problem, because there is a lot of theater that goes on on the House floor. Oftentimes, people say things that are just fundamentally not true. And cutting the $350 million from Planned Parenthood was cutting services for health care. And the abortion procedures that Planned Parenthood does cannot receive one dime of federal funds.
In fact, there is a firewall. They are audited. The services provided by Planned Parenthood that receive federal funds are done at separate times, separate days, separate staff. So, you know, it couldn't be further from the truth. And yet that kind of outrageous dialogue or monologue was going on on the floor that evening. And it's got to stop. We've got to start speaking truth to power.
MARTIN: I think, though, his argument is that even if people have a legal right to an abortion - and many people don't agree with that, including Congressman Smith - they argue that those who have a moral objection should not be forced to pay for it. And even if monies are not directly used for abortion services, they still subsidize an institution which is performing something to which they have a moral objection. Well, how do you respond to that argument?
Rep. SPEIER: It is legal to have an abortion in this country. So regardless of whether you have a moral objection to it or not, as long as it's legal, you cannot prevent it from going on. So, you know, I morally object to war. Wars are legal. We fund wars. We fund wars that, frankly, haven't even been declared wars. Does that somehow prevent dollars from being spent on that?
MARTIN: But there are those who would move to cut off funding for - and have throughout history - functions of government with which they disagree. And they would argue that those functions can proceed, but not with their participation. I just wanted to ask, what about that point of view?
Rep. SPEIER: Well, everyone has a point of view, and people disagree. And certainly Congressman Smith has, you know, the right to oppose abortions, oppose funding family planning services. But to target Planned Parenthood and to say, because you perform abortions, you shouldn't be able to get funding for providing health care to women.
I mean, it's important to realize that it was President Nixon that first funded family planning services in this country. And by signing that legislation, he said poor women should be able to access health care.
MARTIN: Just one more question on this point, though, the Pence Amendment, which is the legislation that was being debated, it's named after Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, did eventually pass the House by a vote of 240 to 185, 11 Democrats voted for it, seven against. What do you think happens now?
Rep. SPEIER: The continuing resolution has moved to the Senate. It will be considered there. All our eyes are focused on the Senate. It is very important for people that feel as I do that they contact their senators, tell them their stories. We cannot turn the clock back. In our lifetime, in my lifetime, women were using hangers to abort pregnancies. Women were dying and we cannot allow that to happen.
And with all the new technology and the family planning services that are available now, you know, women can access health care for breast cancer screening, for cervical cancer screening, for STDs and get birth control pills and get morning after pills, all of which should prevent us from having to be in a position to deal with more abortions. The truth is that in countries that have more liberal rules about family planning and abortions have fewer abortions than we do in the United States.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to remind those who are not aware of your full biography that this isn't the first time that you've had an experience that demanded a measure of personal courage. As a congressional staffer, you traveled with Congressman Leo Ryan on a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by Jim Jones. This was in 1978. He was killed. Your group was ambushed. Congressman Ryan was killed. You were shot five times. You had to wait hours for medical treatment. And then years later you lost your husband in a car accident when you were pregnant with your second child.
Rep. SPEIER: That's right.
MARTIN: So you've faced some challenges that I think a lot of people may not be aware of, but have certainly been significant. And I wonder if any of those experiences are with you now as you go about doing your work?
Rep. SPEIER: Oh, I think they're all with me. And I think about the journey in terms of reproductive health and what I had to go through to have children. You know, I had a son and then I had these, you know, two miscarriages, then we adopted a baby and the birth mother took the baby back. And then I got pregnant, frankly, miraculously, at the age of 43. And my husband was then killed three months later.
So it's been an incredible journey. But I want to make sure that women's health, particularly around reproductive health, is protected. And that's what this debate has been about.
MARTIN: Jackie Speier is a member of Congress. She represents California's 12th District. She's a Democrat. And she joined us from her office on Capitol Hill. Congresswoman Speier, thank you so much for joining us.
Rep. SPEIER: My pleasure.