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"We need to remove the stigma": For these Democratic women running for office, Roe's reversal is personal

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Implications of Kansas abortion vote
Implications of Kansas voters rejecting new abortion restrictions 04:46

Washington — It was about three minutes after the Supreme Court released its decision rolling back the constitutional right to an abortion when Jamie Cheney understood what she had to do.

Cheney, a candidate in the Democratic primary for the 19th Congressional District in upstate New York, was meeting with a group of women — Republicans and Democrats — when the court overturned Roe v. Wade. She recalled how all the women gathered around her reacted in the same way, transcending political affiliations and generations.

"To a person, women that were in the room, across party lines, in their early 20s to late 60s, early 70s, had silent tears streaming down their faces," Cheney told CBS News. "That was the moment I knew I would share this story."

The story for Cheney is that of her own abortion, which she decided to undergo during her first trimester of pregnancy nearly a decade ago. After becoming sick because of a rare immune disorder, Cheney's doctors found a medication that would fight the infection she developed while pregnant, but they warned it carried a risk of causing significant health issues for the fetus. 

Already with three young children to care for, now ages 8, 10 and 12, Cheney and her husband decided she would have an abortion, determining it was best for their family.

Cheney, who started her own recruiting and consulting firm and runs a cattle farm with her husband, had shared her experience with those close to her and with some groups of voters earlier in her campaign. But after the Supreme Court dismantled nearly 50 years of abortion precedent in late June, she spoke with her husband about what she said was a strong instinct to share their story more widely.

So on July 21, nearly one month after Roe's reversal, Cheney released her first television ad of the campaign, focusing on her decision to have an abortion.

"If there were a comprehensive understanding of that fact that no woman ever wants to have an abortion, no woman ever wants to be in that situation, in that context, these are not exceptions to the rule," she told CBS News, indicating her experience of accessing abortion as part of women's medical care is not an outlier. "They are simply things that happened in the course of being a woman and in the course of reproductive health, and we need to remove the stigma or the concept that these are the exceptions before we can treat this simply as the health care right that it is."

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Jamie Cheney, a candidate in the Democratic primary for New York's 19th Congressional District, shares her story about having an abortion in her first television ad. Jamie Cheney for Congress/YouTube

The seat Cheney is vying for was held by Antonio Delgado, now New York's lieutenant governor, and the district lines were redrawn following the 2020 census. Under the old bounds, the seat swung from Republican control from 2011 to 2019 to Democratic control with Delgado's victory in the 2018 and 2020 elections, and voters in the district went for former President Barack Obama in 2012, former President Donald Trump in 2016, and then President Biden in 2020.

Cheney is up against one other Democrat, Josh Riley, in next week's primary, which is taking place the same day as a special election to replace Delgado and serve the remainder of his term. The Democratic nominee will face Republican Marcus Molinaro, Dutchess County executive, in November. The race is rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. Cheney has received a slew of endorsements ahead of the primary, including from Emily's List, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and two sitting congresswomen, Reps. Lois Frankel of Florida and Kathy Manning of North Carolina.

Republicans have been working to cast the November midterm elections, which offer them the opportunity to regain control of the House, as a referendum on Democrats and policies they argue have led to high gas prices and historic inflation.

But for Democrats, especially Democratic women on the ballot, the Supreme Court's decision ending the constitutional right to an abortion turned the issue into one of electoral importance and served as a springboard for them to share their personal experiences.

"We think this is motivating for people who support abortion rights. We think this is motivating them to turn out, to vote for people who will support their rights," said Christina Reynolds, spokeswoman for Emily's List, which works to elect female candidates who support abortion rights. "We also think it's a powerful thing when you can tell a story and connect to a voter, you can remind them of the human side of the issue."

Cheney joins a growing line of candidates and elected officials who have spoken publicly about their personal experiences with abortion, which demonstrate the myriad reasons for terminating a pregnancy and seek to challenge the notion that open discussion of the procedure is taboo.

In February 2011, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, became the first member of Congress to speak on the House floor about having an abortion, which she underwent when she was 17 weeks pregnant after learning the fetus was not viable. 

More than a decade later, three more Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Barbara Lee of California, Cori Bush of Missouri and Pramila Jayapal of Washington — testified publicly before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in September 2021 about having terminated their own pregnancies. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James revealed in May that she, too, had an abortion shortly after she was elected to the New York City Council in 2003. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told Fox 2 Detroit in April that while pregnant with triplets in 2002, she aborted one of the unborn babies on the advice of her doctors and to protect the other two, who are now college-aged. 

"There are a lot of different reasons to make this decision for yourself, and that's exactly why it should be your decision," Reynolds said. "Health care decisions and family planning decisions, all those decisions are something that I think are a fundamental part of freedom — your ability to decide how your life is going to move forward is critical to having personal freedom, and that's something abortion rights gives you."

Jeannine Lee Lake, a Democrat running in Indiana's 5th Congressional District, had only shared her experience with family, friends and members of her church in Muncie. But the Supreme Court's decision reversing Roe was the catalyst for her to speak more widely about having an abortion, helping Lake to shed the shame she said she felt.

"[Overturning] Roe v. Wade made me think for the first time that we are in a different paradigm, and I can't be 'Jeannine Lee Lake, a political figure,' in this moment," she said. "I actually need to be 'Jeannine Lee Lake, a woman, a mother, a grandmother who is concerned about the reproductive rights of all women.'"

She added: "I'm not really talking from a political stance because truthfully, it's not anyone's damn business whether or not a woman chooses abortion, and I come from a place where I've experienced this as someone who knows what it's like to feel helpless and to feel that you don't have any other choice."

For Lake, that place is her freshman year at Ball State University in the spring of 1988, where she, the daughter of a Pentecostal pastor who pledged not to have sex until marriage, became pregnant after she was date-raped. 

"I was always the good girl, the smart girl. I was the first girl in my family to go to college, first person in my family to graduate from college. I don't put myself in dangerous positions. I was embarrassed," she said. "I did the thing that I don't think that many Christians would approve of, but I did it because I knew it was right for me."

Lake unsuccessfully ran to represent Indiana's 6th Congressional District twice, facing off against GOP Rep. Greg Pence, former Vice President Mike Pence's brother, in 2018 and 2020. In May, she bested Matt Hall in the Democratic primary and will challenge incumbent GOP Rep. Victoria Spartz in the November general election. 

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Congressional candidate Jeannine Lee Lake, second from left, participates in an abortion rights rally at the Indiana House of Representatives. Courtesy of Jeannine Lee Lake

The district is rated solidly Republican by Cook Political Report, but Lake is encouraged by this month's results of a ballot initiative in Kansas, another reliably red state where a proposed amendment to strip the right to an abortion from the state's constitution was roundly defeated

"[Indiana] may be a red state, but there's more women here than men, and they don't want people to tell them what to do with their own bodies, regardless of party. We're tired of that," she said. Calling the current political landscape a "watershed moment," Lake has a message for women, in particular: "If she's not planning to vote, then she's just not paying attention right now."

Looking ahead to November, Reynolds said the results in Kansas, which marked the first time the issue of abortion rights was on the ballot since the Supreme Court's June 24 decision, demonstrate that abortion access is a motivating issue for voters this election cycle.

A CBS News poll from June found 59% of voters disapprove of the ruling overturning Roe, including 67% of women. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released earlier this month found 73% of women voters ages 18 to 49, the demographic most affected by abortion restrictions, said abortion will be "very important" to deciding who to vote for in November, a 14-percentage-point jump from February.

"I think a lot of people didn't believe Donald Trump could take away this right because of Roe v. Wade, because they thought that backstop existed," Reynolds said. "When you take away that backstop, you change the dynamic completely."

For Cheney, the candidate running in New York's 19th Congressional District, the results in Kansas reinforced her belief that the opinion from the Supreme Court's conservative majority does not reflect the views of the American public and suggests anti-abortion rights politicians underestimated voters, and specifically women.

"There were a lot of assumptions made that ended up not being true, and it is our job as representatives to make sure that we are never operating on assumptions. We are operating in touch with the views and needs of constituents in our district," she said. "We need people to know they're not alone. They can be what is perceived as responsible and making good decisions, and this does not reflect on them."

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