A military veteran from West Virginia rose from the audience, her voice quivering as she relayed to former Vice President Joe Biden that she’d been sexually assaulted multiple times and had had three abortions.
Now an activist, Peshka Calloway told Biden that she had been able to use Medicaid to pay for her abortions, but today, women in similar situations cannot because West Virginia last year adopted a law stricter than the federal ban on funding for abortions, known as the Hyde Amendment. The Post typically does not identify victims of sexual assault but is naming her because she spoke in a public forum.
“I fought for some of these women, and I promise you, their pain is real and their experiences are real, and it would break your hearts,” she said, crying. “Across the country, generations of women in situations like mine have suffered because of the Hyde Amendment, because it is in place.”
The emotional moment at the Planned Parenthood candidates forum in South Carolina on Saturday came just after Biden was asked to defend his “mixed record” on abortion.
Last month, some Democratic activists, lawmakers and 2020 challengers criticized Biden over his career-long support for the Hyde Amendment, forcing Biden to flip his position and come out against it.
Biden sought to explain that he shifted his stance because his overall health care plan — which he has not released — would rely on expanding access to federally funded health insurance, which means that if the Hyde Amendment remained in place, those people wouldn’t have access to abortion coverage.
Nearly every candidate who spoke at the event mentioned their opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which has only recently become a mainstream position for Democrats.
The forum featured 20 of the 23 Democratic candidates, and each had a moment like this where an attendee shared a personal anecdote and wondered how the politician would expand reproductive rights at a time when conservative states are passing laws to restrict, and in some cases effectively outlaw, abortions.
Another searing moment came when Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York about being 19 years old, pregnant and unable to afford an abortion.
Her voice shaking, Roberts said that she’d tried unsuccessfully to terminate the pregnancy herself by throwing herself down the stairs, drinking until she threw up, taking a hot bath and riding every ride at the county fair that said “do not ride while pregnant.”
“I am devastated that it is 2019, and I am still getting calls from women in the Mississippi Delta saying, ‘Ms. Laurie, please help me because I am going to drink bleach or my friend told me to drink watered-down turpentine with sugar,’” Roberts said.
Gillibrand teared up as she responded.
“No legislature in any one of these states — which are mostly white men, mostly older men — they cannot know a minute of your experience. Not a minute of your experience as a mother, not a minute of your experience that you were this close to putting your life in your own hands,” Gillibrand said, adding she would take the lead on repealing the Hyde Amendment.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was also asked, by a 22-week-old pregnant woman, how she would ensure access to reproductive health care in states such as South Carolina where clinics were sparse. Warren checked off the list of policies she supports, such as repealing the Hyde Amendment, but then turned to the implications of states such as South Carolina chipping away at abortions rights as a socio-economic issue.
“The attack is not just an attack on women,” Warren said. “It is an attack on women who have fewer resources. It is a class attack on women. It is a race attack on women.”
While much of Saturday’s forum focused on women, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, responded to an audience member who asked about men in conversations about reproductive health. Franco Caliz-Aguilar, senior political adviser at Community Change, began his question by remarking on his position as a man in the room.
“I’m in a lot of ways the last person who should be up here right now. I am surrounded, just about on every angle, by some of the most talented, brilliant and amazing women I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet,” Caliz-Aguilar said. He continued, “One of the things I keep seeing is the same discussion over and over again, a discussion when we talk around women, at women and about women, but don’t let them into the actual decision-making room.”
In a response that evoked laughter in the room, Sanders said, “I don’t think it’s inappropriate for a man to be involved because the last I heard, pregnancy involves more than just women.”
Sanders did not respond directly to the call for more women at the table, but instead urged the men in the room to advocate for sexual and reproductive health care.
“If there was ever a time in American history for men to stand up and join women in that fight, this is the moment,” he said.