Politics

How Rep. Ayanna Pressley is pushing back on abortion bans


“My colleagues and I have zero tolerance” on bans, the Congress member told Vox.

“Hyde’s days are numbered,” says Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

Repealing the amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions, “is more than my hope,” the Congress member told Vox. “It is my desire, it is my intention, it is my plan.”

Pressley, who was elected in 2018 to represent Massachusetts’ 7th district, has emerged as one of the most vocal advocates of abortion rights and contraceptive access in the current Congress. While nearly all of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have come out in favor of repealing Hyde, which prevents Medicaid from covering abortions for low-income Americans, House leadership has been slower to act.

When Pressley proposed an amendment to remove Hyde restrictions from a recent government spending bill earlier this month, the House Rules committee declined to include it, as Jessie Hellmann reported at the Hill.

“I wish we never had a Hyde Amendment,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a summit soon after, “but it is the law of the land right now and I don’t see that there is an opportunity to get rid of it with the current occupant of the White House and some in the United States Senate.”

Nevertheless, Pressley is undeterred. In a recent interview, she says she’s committed to making sure future spending bills don’t include Hyde. Meanwhile, she’s also introduced, along with Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Affordability Is Access Act, which would ensure that birth control remains copay-free if it becomes over-the-counter. While the push for over-the-counter birth control got a surprise assist from Sen. Ted Cruz earlier this month, Pressley says she’s not convinced of his intentions.

The Representative spoke with me by phone last week about these legislative efforts and how the freshman class of Democrats — which includes the youngest women ever elected to Congress, as well as the first Native American and Muslim women — is changing Washington. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Anna North

You’ve been working on a number of legislative efforts around reproductive health and reproductive justice recently. How did you arrive at your interest in those issues?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley

I think it’s important to note that I’m not new to these issues in this world, because of my own lived experience as a woman. But in my eight-year tenure on the Boston City Council, I viewed every issue through a lens of equity and health. And now that I’m in Congress, I continue to view every issue through the lens of equity and health. And now I get to work at it on scale. These are national challenges in the midst of what is a coordinated attack to undermine, repeal, and roll back so many of the gains that have been made in the space of reproductive justice. It is very clear that the other side has been playing a long game here. It’s a strategic, coordinated effort.

Anna North

Your amendment to repeal Hyde was rejected earlier this month. What’s next for you in terms of trying to repeal Hyde, and why is that repeal so important right now?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley

First, I just want to give credit where credit is due and lift up the longstanding leadership of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who I know worked very hard as an appropriator to try to get Hyde removed from this package. I offered an amendment to strip it. Certainly, we had hoped it would be reported in order. But at the end of the day, we have to leverage every tool available to us, legislatively, within our courts, on the grassroots mobilization side. Hyde’s days are numbered and it is more than my hope — it is my desire, it is my intention, it is my plan — that this [government spending] package will be the last package to include Hyde.

Can I just say that, here we have an unprecedented number of women serving in Congress, unprecedented in number, in representation, an unprecedented number of women serving in their childbearing years. And we have the first pro-choice majority in the history of Congress. And so to have this coordinated attack of these draconian, oppressive policies being rolled out against the backdrop of this Congress, it means that we have an opportunity to do exactly what we were sent here to do as members. And that’s checks and balances. As hopeless as we might feel inclined to be, there are many tools still available to us.

I introduced a resolution to codify Roe v. Wade on the federal level, supporting an individual constitutional right to abortion care, which is health care.

We have the EACH Woman Act. And there’s another bill that was introduced by [Rep.] Judy Chu, to ensure that doctors are not prosecuted for performing abortion care, which is an issue near and dear to me in my time on the council. I worked for several years to have a square dedicated in Boston to Dr. Ken Edelin, who was a doctor at City Hospital, an African American doctor who was convicted of manslaughter for performing abortion. And that matter went all the way to the [Massachusetts] Supreme Court. And that was not that long ago.

We find ourselves in very sobering times in a very sobering landscape, but I remain, along with my colleagues, undeterred in our efforts.

Anna North

Earlier this month, House speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Hyde “is the law of the land right now and I don’t see that there is an opportunity to get rid of it with the current occupant of the White House and some in the United States Senate.” What’s your response to that kind of statement?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley

I respect the speaker. I think we see this issue differently. I’m committed to ensuring that future budgets do not include Hyde and [to] doing what I’ve always done, and that is building an inclusive coalition to do this work in partnership with those who stand to be the most impacted, and bringing my colleagues along in doing that.

Like I said, we have this new pro-choice majority, and my colleagues and I have zero tolerance: no more. Abortion rights are human rights. What’s so powerful about this Congress is that we have this multi-generational, pro-choice caucus of women who remember back-alley abortions and then women who have not known a world where they didn’t have choice.

And you know, I’ve always said that the best policies are data-informed, but the data is not numbers. The data is the stories that we lift up. And I do want to commend my colleague Rep. Jayapal for her courage in sharing her own abortion story. It really does show the diversity of lived experience around this issue. The greater diversity of stories that we can lift up, the more it helps to build a coalition and to make the case for the fact that abortion care is health care.

Anna North

Can you talk a little bit about the Affordability Is Access Act? What did you think of Senator Cruz’s recent tweet supporting over-the-counter birth control?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley

I don’t think too much. Maya Angelou has been a huge influence in my life and she once said, “when people show you who they are, believe them.” So I already know who Ted Cruz is.

Moving on from that, the reason that we’ve introduced the Affordability Is Access Act is to remove these barriers — which are very expensive — to contraceptive care. Despite the fact that the Pill is one of the safest and most effective forms of birth control, nearly one in three individuals continue to face barriers when trying to access contraception. It’s just really unacceptable.

I also want to say that I really love the fact that this bill is being introduced with [Rep.] Ami [Bera (D-CA)]. This is the work of everyone who is committed to health care, justice, and equity. This is not just a women’s issue.

Anna North

You talked about being part of a historic class of Democrats in Congress. Do you feel like you and the other Democrats elected in 2018 have changed Congress? Are there changes you’d still like to see?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley

Well, we’ve been here less than six months and we find ourselves here during an unprecedented time. I’m thrilled to be here under a Democratic majority, and as frustrating and infuriating as it is that the Senate is not doing their job, what I know is that my colleagues and I wake up clear-eyed every day about what we need to do, and that is to lead and to legislate on issues of consequence to the American people. And that is what we’re doing.

And so of course I want to see change. I want to see systemic change. There are entrenched inequities and disparities that plague the Massachusetts 7th, and the district that I have the honor of representing is certainly not an anomaly. I think the impact that we’re having is one that is consistent with [the fact that] whenever you add a diversity of lens and lived experience, you have that diversity of perspective, opinion, and thought in the corridors of power and around policy- and decision-making tables. I think everyone benefits, different questions are asked, different issues are raised. So we find ourselves in unprecedented times, and I do believe these times demand unprecedented organizing and unprecedented mobilizing and unprecedented legislating, and that’s certainly what my team and I wake up every day focused to do.




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