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We Deserve to Be Pregnant Without Fear

preview for Black Maternal Health Week

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson never thought she would go public with the most painful moment of her life. “I lived with it for 50 years—my children didn’t even know,” she tells ELLE. But after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Rep. Wilson knew that in order to make a difference she needed to share her truth. During a congressional debate on abortion policy, Rep. Wilson spoke out about carrying the dead fetus of her baby for more than two months in 1969, because her doctor was prohibited by law from inducing labor pre-Roe. “We have to make sure that we never go back to those days where we lose our autonomy over our bodies,” she says now.

Congresswoman Lucy McBath also felt called to open up, recounting a similarly painful story of pregnancy loss during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on abortion. In 1993, Rep. McBath suffered a fetal demise due to complications from fibroids and carried her dead baby for two weeks before going into labor. “It’s a club nobody wants to belong to, a club that many women will now belong to because of what’s happening in this country,” she tells ELLE.

With the future of abortion pills hanging in the balance, a new Florida bill banning most abortions after six weeks, the widespread criminalization of pregnancy, and the shocking number of Black maternal deaths in the U.S. (Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women), Reps. McBath and Wilson refuse to stand by—or stay silent. For this year’s Black Maternal Health Week, officially recognized by President Joe Biden as a time to amplify “the voices and experiences of Black women,” ELLE gathered the congresswomen in Washington, D.C., for a conversation that feels more necessary than ever. “Women are fierce, forceful, and we don’t give up,” Rep. McBath says. “This movement is just getting started. Woe be to those who try and restrict us.”

Below, in their own words, Reps. McBath and Wilson on ending systemic inequities—and fighting for a future in which women do not have to fear for their lives before, during, or after pregnancy.

Surviving the pain of miscarriage

Rep. Lucy McBath:I remember feeling the kicks, these little flutter kicks. I was so excited to be pregnant. But over time, the kicks were becoming less and less and less. My son died when I was almost five months pregnant, and I was absolutely devastated. I’d had two miscarriages before then. My doctor wanted me to go into labor on my own, so for two weeks I carried my son, Lucien, just waiting to go into labor. It was so distressing and so painful, because people would come up to me and say, “When are you due?” and “Is it a boy or a girl?” and “What are you naming your child?” We were able to see Lucien, to hold him, when I eventually went into labor. I saw all five of his fingers, all five of his toes. His little belly, his little nose. It was one of the most painful moments in my life.

Rep. Frederica Wilson: I experienced something similar, but this was before Roe v. Wade. So abortion, and the inducement of labor, was against the law. I was so happy I was carrying my baby, and my husband and I would revel at the fact that we could feel this baby kicking. One day the kicks stopped. I went to the doctor, and the doctor pronounced the baby dead. I went ballistic. I cried. Oh, did I cry. I said, “What am I supposed to do?” They said, “Well, there’s not really much we can do.” I said, “You can’t remove him?” They said, “Oh no, that’s against the law.” It was a baby boy. Paul Wilson Jr. was his name. I had to go home knowing that I was carrying a deceased child. The baby that I longed for, the baby that I always wanted, was dead. Then I had to come to terms with the fact that I was still carrying this baby. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t go anywhere. I would curl up in my mother’s lap and cry. When my husband came home at night, I would curl up in his lap and cry. I lost so much weight. I think I must have lost 50 pounds. The baby began to disintegrate, but my doctor said he still couldn’t induce labor. My husband was beside himself. Finally, after two and a half months, I went into labor. It was the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced. As I was leaving the hospital, there were other mothers leaving the maternity ward with babies and flowers. I came out with nothing. No baby. To this day, I still grieve.

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Standing up and speaking out

LM: Women are not numbers. We’re not statistics, we’re real live human beings. Our lives and the lives of the children that we want to bear are at risk. I am a woman who, through no fault of my own, had to deliver a stillborn child with the very same kinds of medicine that some are now trying to outlaw. Would I be criminalized today for the medicine that was used to induce my labor? There are millions of women around the country who will either lose their children or have similar circumstances to me. That same important medicine that is needed for them, they might not have access to it now. They might not have access to the care they need, that they deserve, that is their right. The United States government should not be interfering or interceding on the decisions that a woman needs to make with her healthcare provider, her loved ones, and, if necessary, her God. It’s important for us to tell our stories, because there’s so many other women out there like me. We have to tell our stories, and stand on the front lines so that our freedoms and our rights are not rolled back. We deserve to make the decisions about our bodies. Nobody else.

FW: With the total abortion ban that some states have—and what the Supreme Court is wrestling with—will take us so far back. I am scared. That’s what made me go to the House floor and give my speech. When you start to tell the story, it’s very painful. It hurts. And it speaks of an injustice. I do not want young childbearing women to go through what I had to go through. When Roe v. Wade was made into law, I was so happy. The thought that we’re on the cusp of taking our young childbearing women back to where I was before Roe… well, that is very devastating for me. That’s why I decided that I would go to the House floor and tell my story. Abortion is maternal healthcare.

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Prioritizing Black maternal healthcare

LM:In the state of Georgia, my state, we waffle between having the first and second highest maternal mortality death rate in the nation. We know that, disproportionately, women of color suffer far more. They will always suffer from the disparities of having a lack of healthcare, and a lack of resources. It can be hard to get to your doctor’s appointment and afford good quality healthcare. It can be hard to even find a good doctor during pregnancy. Not to mention the many women of color who are dying after they’ve given birth, because their complaints and the problems that they had during childbirth were not being heeded. The healthcare disparities that we suffer, it’s real. It lends credence to a lot of the Black healthcare professionals that we have now like our gynecologists and our OBGYNs, who are paying attention and fighting on the front lines to make sure that we’re not suffering from these disparities.

FW: The most drastic impact in our healthcare system is the way that Black women are treated. When doctors see you, the pain that you’re experiencing is not the same pain that a white woman is experiencing. Your diagnosis is different. A lot of times healthcare practitioners don’t listen to us, and they do not attend to our needs the way they do with people who are not Black.

reps underwood, adams, senator harris, members of the black maternal health caucus to introduce new legislative package to address americas black maternal health crisis the black maternal health momnibus includes a series of bills to comprehensively improve maternal health outcomes and close racial disparities in outcomes

Rep. Lucy McBath introducing a legislative package in 2020 to address the urgent maternal health crisis. 

Franmarie Metzlerrep frederica wilson at a press event on reproductive rights

Rep. Wilson at a press event on reproductive rights in front of the U.S. Capitol in 2022.

Phi Nguyen

Protecting Black motherhood

LM:I know there are a lot of women in this country who are unsure about having children, and what that looks like going forward post-Roe. What I would say to any woman that is afraid of the future going forward, is that you have to live. You cannot forego having children because of the restrictive laws that are being put in place. I do honestly believe we will reverse this. There are enough women in this country that are not going to stand by and watch this happen and do nothing. There are women in this country that look forward to having children, and that supersedes, politically, what we see happening in this country. They’ll do whatever they need to do to have children. They’ll do whatever they need to do to be protected. Women are going to still have families and children, and they’re going to continue to fight the system—to allow themselves to be able to have these families freely, as they were intended. This isn’t over yet.

FW:We can’t go back to those pre-Roe days, those days where we lose our autonomy over our bodies. What is so annoying to me is that the leaders of this movement are white men who don’t have a clue. They’ve never had a menstrual period. They don’t know what it is to carry a child. They don’t know what it is to be burdened with children you already have, or with family planning. They don’t have a clue. What is so detrimental to me, is that we have all of these white men on the floor, who are addressing maternal healthcare, addressing abortion, and saying what they think should happen.

This conversation has been abridged and edited for clarity.

Headshot of Rose Minutaglio

Senior Editor

Rose is a Senior Editor at ELLE overseeing features and projects about women’s issues. She is an accomplished and compassionate storyteller and editor who excels in obtaining exclusive interviews and unearthing compelling features.

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