United States Senator Gary Peters, a low-key, moderate Democrat from Michigan, is in a very tight re-election race that could decide whether his party wins the Senate. But he’s not the kind of guy who typically makes national headlines. He’s more known for being a dad who enjoys riding his motorcycle and drinking the local beer than he is for saying attention-grabbing things. So it may come as a surprise that with this story, he will become the first sitting senator in American history to publicly share a personal experience with abortion.
“It’s a story of how gut-wrenching and complicated decisions can be related to reproductive health, a situation I went through with my first wife,” he told me in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.
In the late 1980s in Detroit, Peters and his then wife, Heidi, were pregnant with their second child, a baby they very much wanted. Heidi was four months along when her water broke, leaving the fetus without amniotic fluid—a condition it could not possibly survive. The doctor told the Peters to go home and wait for a miscarriage to happen naturally.
But it didn’t happen. They went back to the hospital the next day, and the doctor detected a faint heartbeat. He recommended an abortion, because the fetus still had no chance of survival, but it wasn’t an option due to a hospital policy banning the procedure. So he sent the couple again home to wait for a miscarriage. “The mental anguish someone goes through is intense,” Peters says, “trying to have a miscarriage for a child that was wanted.”
As they waited, Heidi’s health deteriorated. When she returned to the hospital on the third day, after another night without a natural miscarriage, the doctor told her the situation was dire. She could lose her uterus in a matter of hours if she wasn’t able to have an abortion, and if she became septic from the uterine infection, she could die.
The doctor appealed to the hospital’s board for an exception to their anti-abortion policy and was denied. “I still vividly remember he left a message on the answering machine saying, ‘They refused to give me permission, not based on good medical practice, simply based on politics. I recommend you immediately find another physician who can do this procedure quickly,’” Peters recalls.
The Peters were able to get into another hospital right away because they were friends with its chief administrator. Heidi was rushed into an emergency abortion that saved her uterus and possibly her life. The whole experience was “painful and traumatic,” Heidi shared in a statement. “If it weren’t for urgent and critical medical care, I could have lost my life.”
Reflecting on the experience now, Senator Peters says it “enacted an incredible emotional toll.” So why go public with it? “It’s important for folks to understand that these things happen to folks every day,” he explains. “I’ve always considered myself pro-choice and believe women should be able to make these decisions themselves, but when you live it in real life, you realize the significant impact it can have on a family.”
Peters decided to share the story at this moment because the right to make such decisions as a family, free of politics, has never been more at stake. He is alarmed by the threat President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, poses to women’s reproductive rights. The very conservative nominee once signed her name onto a newspaper ad calling Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion, “barbaric.” If Republicans successfully confirm her to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat, she could reverse legal abortion in America or significantly curtail it. “It’s important for folks who are willing to tell these stories to tell them, especially now,” Peters says. “The new Supreme Court nominee could make a decision that will have major ramifications for reproductive health for women for decades to come. This is a pivotal moment for reproductive freedom.”
It is also a pivotal moment for his campaign. With so much at stake for Peters in a purple state that narrowly broke for Trump in 2016, it is remarkably bold of him to go public with his own abortion story less than a month before the election. Three members of the House have gone public about having had abortions—California Representatives Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier, and Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington—but no sitting Senators.
Peters’ stance on the issue couldn’t be more different from that of his Republican challenger, John James, who supports overturning Roe and has referred to abortion as “genocide.” James openly opposes abortion in nearly all circumstances, including cases of rape and incest, and he won’t say whether he supports allowing the procedure to save the life of the mother. National anti-abortion groups have endorsed James and poured money into his Senate campaign.
But abortion rights activists hope that Peters sharing his story will help put a human face on the sensitive and historically politicized issue, and in doing so, help them in the fight to protect Ginsburg’s legacy. “Senator Peters’s family is an example of countless stories across our nation of the injustice and harm that occurs when we allow politicians who know nothing about our lives to make decisions about our pregnancies,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL. “In breaking the silence, he not only gives voice to what’s at stake, but he reminds us of our common humanity and quest for dignity and compassion when we fight for reproductive freedom for everybody.”
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