‘I Really Needed to Reclaim My Life’: Rep. Gwen Moore Shares Her Abortion Story

Over the course of Gwen Moore’s 17 years in Congress, she hasn’t shied away from talking about difficult issues. The Wisconsin representative has spoken openly about being a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault; she’s explained what it’s like to be a low-income, 18-year-old mother, taking the House floor to address how our nation’s public policy regards poor women and children with “utter contempt.” And now, as the nation prepares for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, per a draft opinion leaked earlier this month, Moore is sharing another part of her life story: her abortion experience. I fell into a deep stupor and depression over [the leaked decision],” Moore told ELLE.com. “I didn’t sleep the first couple of nights after.” The moment moved her to speak in depth publicly for the first time about her own struggles to access abortion care in a pre-Roe America. “[I wanted] to share my story, not as a Congresswoman, but as a poor person who had to go to great lengths to do what I did,” she said. Below, in her own words, she tells it all.

I was 12 years old the first time I encountered the subject of abortion. I had heard my mother on the phone talking about a fellow parishioner at our church who was pregnant with her 11th or 12th child. The doctor had recommended a therapeutic abortion, because she had a heart condition, and they doubted she could continue the pregnancy safely, but she had strong religious beliefs and decided against it. She gave birth successfully, but then died a couple weeks later. I remember thinking, Was it really God’s will for all these kids to be orphaned? I remember looking at her in the casket, so young and so beautiful. To see this woman die—it had a profound impact on me.

I got pregnant for the first time on my 18th birthday: Friday, April 18, 1969. My sister was the one who noticed, just by the way my body had changed. I went to Planned Parenthood, and they confirmed I was pregnant. My daughter was born on Jan. 1, 1970.

That was my senior year of high school, and I was a star student who’d been accepted to an Ivy League university. But starting college as a poor, single mom derailed my plans, and fortunately, Marquette University let me in instead. It was a place that supported me socially, academically, they even ran interference with the welfare system. The executive director at the time would come to my house and say, “Gwen, why weren’t you in school today? What can we do to help?” I was fortunate to have social workers who really tried to support me. I also had an older sister who got her foster care license so she could foster my child. But it was still very difficult to try to crawl and dig and scrape myself out of poverty.

Then, when I was about 19, I got pregnant for a second time. I had no money, no job, no occupational preparedness; I wasn’t even able to adequately take care of the one child I had. I was desperate for an abortion.

This was pre-Roe, and by that point, I’d heard of women who had botched, self-induced abortions. I was two degrees of separation away from people who had died from abortions. So I knew I wanted a safe procedure. I didn’t know how I was going to get it, but once I found out I was pregnant, I was on top of it day and night until I was able to secure help.

The most important memory I have is that I had a safe abortion. There were no complications, no problems, no difficulties. I never looked back, and I was never sorry.

Because of my college connections, I had a network of white feminist women. I got the phone number of a doctor in Madison, Wisconsin, and he referred me to a fund. It was run by these primarily upper-middle-class white women who provided funding for abortion care. They gave me the money for a round-trip ticket to New York City and a car service to and from the facility. When I got to the city, I was terrified. I had never seen that many human beings at one time, and I was all by myself. I remember seeing a woman who had to be 80 years old running for the bus, and I thought, That would never happen in Milwaukee. The bus would stop and wait for the little old lady to get there.

The whole trip was surreal. I don’t have any memories of eating anything, drinking anything; I don’t remember a lot of details, except that I was on a mission. And the most important memory I have is that I had a safe abortion. There were no complications, no problems, no difficulties. I never looked back, and I was never sorry. I never felt like I did something that was inappropriate for me or my family or my situation. I was very, very grateful.

From that point on, I became a very ardent pro-choice advocate. I went on to work as a counselor at an abortion clinic in Wisconsin. I met women who had problems with age, women who were physically not well, women who had irretrievably broken relationships, women who had a lot of kids already. Everybody has their own story, and it’s about what you want your life to be like and what you can handle.

Personally, I consider myself a sociological miracle; I escaped the script that was written for me. I had a very brilliant mother, but she was a woman that grew up in an era where women couldn’t work. It was before there was birth control, and she had nine kids. I was born poor, and I grew up in a household where we had government cheese and welfare benefits. Then I became pregnant, and I was still poor. I really needed to reclaim my life, and having an abortion made a huge difference. I was able to get a degree. I was able to get some work skills under my belt and lean into my talents. I had my second child when my daughter was eight years old, and those eight years really made a difference in terms of making sure I wasn’t permanently mired in poverty.

gwen moore sitting with her three children in a living room

From left to right: Moore with her children, Supreme Moore Omokunde, Jessalynne Moore, and Adesolu Moore Omokunde.

Courtesy Gwen Moore

But I guess I didn’t tell a lot of people about my abortion, because when my 44-year-old son heard me talk about it the other day to a local news station, he said, “Mom, this is breaking news.” It wasn’t that I was hiding my story before or felt like I hadn’t wanted to share; the moment just didn’t happen. But in this instance, it felt right to me. It just flowed out of my mouth as my lived experience, as a reflection and a contemplation of how hard it could become in this country.

I told my abortion story at a moment that I thought was important—to share that all kinds of people need abortion care. I was the kind of woman they’re talking about: poor Black women who will suffer the most from anti-abortion laws. [I wanted] to share my story, not as a Congresswoman, but as a poor person who had to go to great lengths to do what I did. If Roe is overturned, there’s going to be this big caravan of effort, but only for those women who can find a network or have the resilience to seek this out and figure it out in time. Even though I had other people pay for my procedure, it was a lot of work on my part to get to that point.

But it is important to remember that this ain’t a done deal yet. There are demonstrations being planned all over the country and other direct actions. I think it all has an impact; public opinion is important. Democrats also have to make this an electoral issue. Conservatives have done it for decades, but we’re not known for necessarily coming out on this issue.

The leaked draft opinion argued that abortion is not an enumerated right [meaning it’s not listed in the Constitution]. So if this becomes the Court’s official decision, unless there’s an enumerated right in the Constitution, don’t count on it. That means birth control. That’s marrying outside your race or religion. That’s same sex marriage. If you don’t fight for abortion, your rights are on the chopping block next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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