Will the Real Abortion Expert Please Stand Up?

By Johanna Zenn
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Thursday, November 14, the House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing to examine how state policies impact access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion. Congressman William Lacy Clay from Missouri requested the hearing after reports that the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services had been keeping a spreadsheet tracking the menstrual cycles of women who had visited St. Louis’ Planned Parenthood clinic.

The Missouri health department has held up the local Planned Parenthood’s license to perform abortions over concerns of “deficient practices,” and the existence of the spreadsheet was revealed during an investigative hearing scrutinizing the clinic. The spreadsheet was created to track and identify patients who had undergone a “failed” abortion—patients who were still pregnant after receiving abortion care. Not only is this horrifically invasive, but it is also based in anti-choice falsehoods: doctors and scientists have discussed at length how safe and effective abortion is. In reality, only about four in over 4,000 patients at the St. Louis Planned Parenthood had remained pregnant after receiving an abortion. As this is the only abortion clinic left in the state, tactics like these show the lengths that anti-choice officials will go to deny people reproductive healthcare. 

This vile spreadsheet is not the only disturbing action the Missouri health department has taken to violate patients’ bodies. In her opening statement to the committee, then-Acting Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney stated that Dr. Randall Williams, director of Missouri’s Health and Senior Services Department, had ordered that Planned Parenthood perform medically unnecessary pelvic examinations on patients before they could receive an abortion. This is not only a violation of personal autonomy, but also a potentially traumatic measure that could severely affect patients’ mental health.

Witnesses were heard at the hearing, including Jennifer Box, a Missouri resident who told her story of how the state limited her access to an abortion after receiving news that her pregnancy had a fatal fetal diagnosis. Marcela Howell, founder and president of In Our Own Voice, discussed how access to reproductive healthcare is especially important for people of color, especially in a country where Black women are 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, addressed how access to abortion is essential to one’s personal autonomy, liberty, and economic security. But the two witnesses given the majority of questions by members of the committee were Dr. Colleen McNicholas, the Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, and Allie Stuckey, an author and podcast host serving as the minority voice.

Dr. McNicholas faced rude and unfair interrogation from anti-choice representatives who demanded she answer questions with no basis in the reality of reproductive healthcare or human anatomy. She was asked–by straight-faced elected officials–if Planned Parenthood makes a profit from selling fetal remains and if she could recall the “largest baby she had aborted.”

The author and fellow FMF interns and staff who attended the hearing.

Watching this on a screen in an overflow room (the hearing was packed), I could barely believe what I was seeing. These elected politicians were spouting off some of the most incendiary lies I had ever heard–and they were doing it so nonchalantly! They referenced “post-birth abortions,” violent medical procedures that one would only see in a horror movie, and inaccuracies about human gestation that were beyond ridiculous. The rhetoric weaponized in this Congressional hearing is the same rhetoric that gets people harassed, hurt, or even killed. Still, the anti-choicers in the room chose to remain in their echo-chamber.

All of this aside, there were fantastic moments that brought genuine and important conversation, from discussion about the maternal mortality rate for Black women to Congressman Ro Khanna’s thoughtful questioning on the extra barriers facing members of the LGBTQ+ community when accessing reproductive care. The icing on the cake, however, was when Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz used her time to clarify that Ms. Stuckey was merely stating her opinions with no scientific or medical expertise; hearing this acknowledgment that this witness had no business explaining complex medical practices made me feel sane after nearly three hours. Facing anti-choice propaganda is exhausting and disheartening, but as more people are willing to call it out and fight for equal access to abortion, I understand even more why it is important to keep doing it.

By Johanna Zenn

Johanna is a senior at American University studying Psychology and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. While at school, she writes opinion pieces for WVAU, the student-run radio station on campus. When she's not in class or interning at FMF, you can find her nostalgia-watching her favorite TV shows and desperately trying to learn how to cook.

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