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Health System Horrors

Cori Bush’s memoir, which includes gut-wrenching stories of two abortions, illuminates the medical trials many black women endure.

Rep. Cori Bush (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Progressive Rep. Cori Bush tells readers at the beginning of her book that it won’t be a typical political memoir. She’s right: Her unflinching style, combined with the fact that most members of Congress have lived very different lives than Bush has, sets The Forerunner apart.

Bush sets the tone early, opening with a scene in which she is raped. She goes on to recount a string of abusive relationships and violence, her period of homelessness, miraculous healings on the streets of St. Louis, and coming to faith in God.

She describes her family, her upbringing, and how experiencing racism harmed her early as a student, and later in the workplace. She remembers the chaos of protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014. And she writes about campaigning unsuccessfully for the Senate and the House before winning her current seat, Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, in 2020. Bush, a Democrat, became the first black woman to represent the state in Congress.

“If telling my story helps others in positions of power better understand how their decision making affects regular, everyday people, people like me, then my own self-exposure is worth it,” Bush explains of her approach to the book.

Bush’s accounts of four pregnancies, including two abortions, are particularly harrowing and illuminating. Bush recognizes that conservatives may use the gut-wrenching stories about her abortions to advocate against her own policy preferences. But she doesn’t prioritize aligning them with progressive orthodoxy.

“I know that many supporters of reproductive rights will be outraged by my decision to share this story,” she writes after detailing her second abortion.

Bush, pregnant while in college, felt unable to take care of a child. When she was 12 weeks along, she went to an abortion facility despite reservations: “What if something goes wrong? What if I am never able to get pregnant again? What if God punishes me for terminating these two pregnancies?” she writes. Those reservations grew louder in her head as she lay on the medical bed. What happened next is worth reading in her own words:

As the nurse standing nearby started to explain what was about to happen, I interrupted. “I don’t want to do this,” I said. But she continued. She described to me, in detail, what the doctor was doing. I watched him prepare what looked like a long straw connected to tubing. Again, I told her, “I don’t want to do this.” She never responded. She grabbed my hand as the doctor had instructed her to. She told me to look up at a mural of a stained-glass window that was on the room’s ceiling. I wasn’t confident enough in those moments before the procedure started to realize that they didn’t have the power to do anything against my will. It didn’t occur to me that the choice was mine, whether to leave or stay. I felt the doctor snake the long straw inside me, and then I heard the awful sounds as the vacuum sucked the fetus out of my body.

Bush writes that those moments haunt her to this day: “I remember the intense pain and the feeling of helplessness in that moment. I was furious. That doctor ignored my pleas. I was just another person in his assembly line, just another little Black girl. I lay there, wanting to scream.”

Bush still supports abortion rights, writing that those doctors’ lack of judgment “should not be used to prevent other people from having the opportunity to choose what they need for their bodies at any given time.”

You may have seen clips of Bush’s interview on PBS’s Firing Line earlier this month, where she discussed that abortion. It’s doubly horrifying to read her book and realize her other abortion, the first one, came after she was raped at a church camp—and that her then-boyfriend pressured her into the abortion, even though Bush writes it “wasn’t what I wanted.” 

The abortion facility also pushed her to terminate the pregnancy, saying she would not be able to give the child a good start in life and that the fetus was underweight. 

“I had imagined that the clinic would offer me a safe and supportive environment, but I felt judged,” Bush recalls.

When she was in the waiting room, she listened to a half-dozen young white women describe very different consultations than she’d had. The staffers had made those girls feel comfortable, acting as empathetic friends who helped them make decisions, Bush says.

“They were advised about the benefits of adoption, told how loved their babies would be by the families who took them in,” Bush writes. “This had not been mentioned as an option to me.”

After the abortion, she writes, she sank into a deep depression for nearly a year: “I was numb.”

Bush also describes later, infuriating interactions with health care providers. She was dismissed by her doctors when she told them something was wrong at 23 weeks of pregnancy and shortly afterward went into preterm labor.

She had to convince the hospital to admit her and work to keep her son, Zion, alive after doctors told her there was no chance he would live. Bush later advocated for Zion to receive life-saving care when his lung collapsed in the neonatal intensive care unit, after being dismissed again by a nurse who claimed he was fine.

During her next pregnancy, she went into preterm labor at 16 weeks. She writes that one doctor told her, “Just go home and let it abort.” Bush had to fight to get the nurses to call her own doctor, whose care was able to extend the pregnancy to 36 weeks.

Bush brings those experiences to her work in Congress. She testified at a hearing about black maternal death rates last year, sharing those agonizing stories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

“Every day, black women die because the system denies our humanity,” Bush said at the time.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.