I Never Planned to Tell My Abortion Story—Especially on Capitol Hill

the united states capitol in washington dc
Why I Told My Abortion Story at WorkGetty + Design Leah Romero

In December, I went to the doctor’s office thinking I had the flu. It was peak season, and I had all the usual symptoms: vomiting, dizziness, and a bad headache. It turned out I was nine weeks pregnant.

When I got the results, I knew immediately that I wanted an abortion—specifically, a medication abortion. I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life, including in medical settings, and too often, routine doctors’ visits have resulted in panic attacks or fainting. Even with anxiety medication—and despite knowing that in-clinic abortion procedures are common and safe—it would have been nearly impossible for me to go alone to get one. In order to have someone come with me to a clinic for the procedure, I would have had to tell my parents or friends, something I wasn’t comfortable doing yet. Instead, I was grateful to have the option to take the abortion pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, at home—a way to make this painful experience more bearable.

At the time, I desperately wanted support, but I was worried about how it would be perceived. I felt irresponsible and ashamed. I didn’t want it to hurt my relationship with my family, friends, or my current boyfriend, whom I had met around the time of my abortion.

Of all places, I never thought I would bring it up at work. I’m the deputy communications director for Congressman Ro Khanna, and on Capitol Hill, it often feels like there is immense pressure to be professional—and even perfect—both at work and outside of it.

Working in politics, I am also painfully aware of the stigma that exists around abortion. I watch day after day as Republican lawmakers, with whom I share elevators and hallways, attack abortion rights on social media, cable news, and in floor speeches. Even lawmakers who support abortion typically only bring it up in the context of policy; I rarely hear it talked about from a personal perspective among staff or members of Congress. And when they are talking about policy, it’s common for politicians—including Democrats—to use euphemisms like “reproductive rights” and “women’s health care,” which only adds to the stigma and the shame. Because of this environment, it felt like there wasn’t space for me to share my experience with other staffers or even friends at work.

Then, just months after having my own abortion, a Texas judge ruled the FDA’s approval of mifepristone was invalid, and Florida lawmakers passed a six-week abortion ban. (Mifepristone remains legal for now, but the attacks against medication abortion will surely continue.)

I hadn’t planned on telling anyone about my abortion, but once I saw these restrictions, the toll on my mental health was overwhelming. Physically and emotionally recovering from my abortion was difficult on its own, but being plugged into the news at work nearly every day was a scary reminder that access to abortion for me and millions of others could be threatened at any moment.

After weeks of feeling isolated and anxious, I knew I had to do something. I decided to speak up at work with the hope that sharing my story could help build a support system in a place where—given the demands of my job—I spend most of my time. I thought starting a conversation about abortion in my office could help me, and potentially others working in Congress, feel more understood and less alone.

So, I decided to tell my boss, Congressman Khanna. The congressman and my colleagues were nothing but supportive and empathetic, and it made me wish I had spoken up sooner and leaned on people around me for support. They thanked me for my bravery and leadership in speaking up, which they also hoped would start a discussion about abortion on the Hill. It all made me feel less alone, especially in a place like Capitol Hill, which can often be judgmental and harsh.

I shared my story, because it’s essential that, across Congress, we figure out ways to support our colleagues who have had abortions or are more generally struggling with their mental health. Each office in Congress has its own unique culture and set of policies, which vary depending on the member of Congress and senior staff. Not every office gives staff flexibility to go to a therapy appointment or has an open mind about staff sharing their personal experiences. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of reporting that shows a lack of empathy for staff among some members of Congress.

I’m fortunate to work for a member of Congress who not only cares deeply about our well-being but also offers generous sick leave, mental health days, and flex time for therapy appointments. All of these policies helped me in my recovery, and every office in Congress could be a healthier, more productive workplace if they ensured that staff have the space and time to care for their health.

Many of us have worked through an insurrection on Jan. 6, the COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings in the news, and attacks on our fundamental rights—including abortion rights. Senator John Fetterman talking openly about his treatment for depression started positive conversations in Congress, but it will require an effort from managers and members of Congress to make changes and tackle the stigma that makes it difficult to talk about mental health or personal hardships.

This includes proactively starting conversations about how attacks on abortion and other rights in the news are affecting us. It will also require offices to adopt policies that support mental health and lead by example so people know that they can take time off to get the care they need. There has to be more kindness and empathy for those trying to process a difficult political environment.

Over the past year, staffers have been standing up for better treatment in Congress and have started unionizing their offices for the first time in U.S. history. I’m hopeful that these conversations around workplace conditions and mental health will also lead to meaningful changes in the culture and policies that currently make staff feel isolated or like they can’t ask for support.

As congressional staff and members of Congress continue to help shape the national conversation around abortion, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a talking point; it’s a real issue for people we work with every day. Restricting abortion—and creating a culture where people can’t speak up about their experiences—hurts everyone. Building a nation that trusts people to choose their own health care—and supports them in telling their stories—is how we start to heal.

You Might Also Like