COLUMBUS, Ohio – For more than two decades, Nancy Mace did not speak publicly about her rape. In April, when she finally broke her silence, she chose the most public of forums – before her colleagues in South Carolina’s legislature.
A bill was being debated that would ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected; Mace, a Republican lawmaker, wanted to add an exception for rape and incest. When some of her colleagues in the House dismissed her amendment – some women invent rapes to justify seeking an abortion, they claimed – she could not restrain herself.
“For some of us who have been raped, it can take 25 years to get up the courage and talk about being a victim of rape,” Mace said, gripping the lectern so hard she thought she might pull it up from the floor. “My mother and my best friend in high school were the only two people who knew.”
As one Republican legislature after another has pressed ahead with restrictive abortion bills in recent months, they have been confronted with raw and emotional testimony about the consequences of such laws. Female lawmakers and other women have stepped forward to tell searing, personal stories – in some cases speaking about attacks for the first time to anyone but a loved one or their closest friend.
Mace is against abortion in most cases and supported the fetal heartbeat bill as long as it contained the exception for rape and incest. She said her decision to reveal an attack that has haunted her for so long was intended to help male lawmakers understand the experience of those victims.
“It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on, there are so many of us who share this trauma and this experience,” Mace said in an interview. “Rape and incest are not partisan issues.”
Personal horror stories have done little to slow passage of bills in Georgia, where a lawmaker told about having an abortion after being raped, or Alabama, where the governor this week signed a law that bans all abortions unless they are necessary to save the life of the mother.
In Ohio, a fetal heartbeat bill passed even after three lawmakers spoke out on the floor about their rapes – among them State Rep. Lisa Sobecki, who argued for a rape exemption by recounting her own assault and subsequent abortion.
It was gut-wrenching, the Navy veteran said, but her decision to speak out was validated the next day when she was approached in the grocery store by a man in his 70s, whose wife of 41 years had read of her account that morning in the local newspaper. The story prompted his wife to tell him for the first time that she also had been raped.
“It’s not just our stories,” Sobecki said. “It’s giving voice to the voiceless, those that haven’t felt for a very long time that they could tell their stories and be heard.”
Four years ago, when a previous fetal heartbeat bill was being debated, state Sen. Teresa Fedor, then a state representative, surprised colleagues with her story of being raped while in the military and having an abortion. She felt compelled to share the story again this year when the issue resurfaced.
“It’s not something you like to focus on,” the Toledo Democrat said. “And it didn’t seem to have an impact in stopping the effort, so that’s the sad part.”
The governor signed the bill, without exceptions for rape or incest.
Ohio state Rep. Erica Crawley, a Democrat representing Columbus, said she didn’t intend to share the story of her sexual assault when floor debate on the heartbeat bill began. But she said she was motivated by a Republican colleague who alleged that witnesses at committee hearings on the bill had exaggerated or fabricated their stories.
“I wanted them to know that I’m someone you have respect for, and this has happened to me,” she said.
Crawley felt she had no choice but to speak out: “Because if I stay silent, I feel like I’m complicit.”
Kelly Dittmar, an expert on women and politics at Rutgers University, said she would not be surprised if even more female lawmakers begin to speak out about their rapes and abortions. More women feel empowered by the #MeToo movement, she said, and the record number of women who won seats in state legislatures last year gives them a greater voice.
“For some women who have healed enough in their own personal battles with this type of abuse, they might be comfortable speaking about this publicly because they see a higher purpose for it,” she said.
One such woman is Gretchen Whitmer. In 2013, she was minority leader in the Michigan state Senate when she spoke against a Republican-backed effort to require separate health insurance to cover abortion.
Seven minutes into her floor speech, a visibly upset Whitmer put down her notes and told her colleagues that she had been raped more than 20 years earlier and that the memory of the attack continued to haunt her. She thanked God that she had not become pregnant by her attacker.
In an interview this week, the Democrat said her decision to share her story was the right one. After her testimony, her office received thousands of emails from people thanking her.
“That was the thing that bolstered me the most and convinced me that I had to continue speaking out and running for office and taking action,” she said. “There are a lot of victims and survivors out there who care, who need to be heard, who need to be represented and who need the law to reflect what we want and need to see in our country.”
Earlier this week, Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature passed two bills to restrict abortions and sent them to the governor.
That governor is now Whitmer. She said she will veto both of them.
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