In early April, at a congressional hearing on a bill to give federal nondiscrimination protection to LGBTQ people, Rep. Pramila Jayapal gave an emotional, tearful speech about how her child had discovered a “newfound freedom” since coming out as gender-nonconforming.
On Thursday, Jayapal, D-Seattle, again publicly shared a deeply personal story, writing an op-ed for The New York Times titled “The Story of My Abortion.”
In it, Jayapal tells the story of her 22-year-old child, who was born unexpectedly in India, more than three months early, weighing less than 2 pounds. Her child, Janak, survived after months in intensive care and years of emergency room visits due to weak lungs caused by the premature birth.
“I wanted more children, but in numerous conversations with my doctors, they told me that any future pregnancy would be extremely high-risk and could result in a birth similar to Janak’s,” Jayapal wrote.
When she got pregnant years later, despite taking precautions, she said the decision was “excruciating.”
“It had to be my choice, because in the end, I would be the one to carry the fetus in my body, I would be the one to potentially face another emergency cesarean section, and I would be the one whose baby could suffer the serious, sometimes fatal consequences of extreme prematurity,” she wrote. “I decided I could not responsibly have the baby.”
Jayapal has previously told the story of Janak’s premature birth multiple times, but had never publicly talked about her abortion.
Jayapal, an immigrant who founded an immigrants advocacy group before she became a member of Congress, said being able to speak personally about these issues helps her to connect with real people across the country.
“I think that when you elect people who represent a whole complexity of experiences and backgrounds, this is part of what you get,” Jayapal said in a phone interview. “You get people who have had very personal experiences on the very issues they are making policy around.”
Jayapal said that not much preplanning went into either instance of publicly sharing her stories, although there was more forethought involved in the op-ed.
Her speech about Janak, at the congressional hearing, “happened in the moment as I was listening to the Republicans really undermine, particularly, nonbinary and trans people.”
She said she wrote the op-ed last Monday as she was flying from Seattle back to Washington, D.C. She thought about the recent abortion bans passed by state legislatures across the country. Nine states have passed laws this year either banning abortion completely or outlawing it after a certain point in pregnancy.
She sat on the plane and wrote the op-ed on her iPad.
“As I looked at rights being taken away for women across the country, I felt I really needed to use my platform for the maximum extent,” Jayapal said. “Giving up my personal story was worth it.”
She sent what she’d written to her husband, to Janak, to her sister and to her niece and asked what they all thought of it.
When they were all supportive, she shared it with a staff member who used to run NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and they decided to send it to The New York Times. The newspaper responded in less than a day. They suggested a few edits that ended up cutting about 300 words, but other than that it ran just as she’d written it.
Her staff did some cursory research on other members of Congress that have spoken publicly about their abortions and found that Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has spoken about it and Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., recently spoke about grappling with the decision as a teenager, before she miscarried. There may be a few others as well, but “it’s still a very small group.”
“We as elected officials are not some distant, impersonal, unbiased arbiter,” Jayapal said. “We are people who should represent real people and real diversity of experience across the country.”