Pro-lifers fight to protect women from dangerous drugs
National groups lead effort to put state-level limits on the abortion pill
Leslie Wolbert stayed up late on a Thursday night in January to finish recording her video testimony for the Montana House of Representatives. The judiciary committee was considering a bill to solidify safety measures for the abortion pill, and a pro-life leader asked Wolbert to testify about her own experience taking the drug.
Since state COVID-19 restrictions prevented the homeschool mom of two from traveling from her home outside of Buffalo, N.Y., Wolbert recorded a video on her husband’s phone. She spent hours in her bedroom working on it. She cried so much while recounting her traumatizing experience that, at around 10 or 11 p.m., she redid her makeup and hair before recording the final takes. Her husband fell asleep on the couch in the other room while waiting for her to finish.
“I plead with you to not allow this horrifying procedure to expand in your state,” Wolbert said at the end of the three-minute video. “Please pass strong safeguards on the abortion pill. Women believe that someone is looking out for them, but if the FDA removes safeguards, then we will need you to ensure that the women of your state are protected.”
The bill passed the Montana House later that month and the Senate a month after that. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it at the end of April. Montana was one of several states to push for regulations for the abortion pill as part of a concerted effort to protect women from dangerous at-home abortions as health standards loosen at the national level.
Under President Joe Biden, the Food and Drug Administration removed the in-person requirement for dispensing the abortion pill during COVID-19. Abortion activists have made their long-term intentions clear: They want that rule permanently discarded, even after the pandemic ends. Sue Swayze Liebel, state policy director for the Susan B. Anthony List, said pro-lifers have seen this push coming for years. Ever since the FDA first approved mifepristone in 2000, the abortion industry has bucked against any limitations on the drugs, and the pandemic offered the perfect opportunity to keep expanding access. That and Biden’s announcement of then-Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate set off alarm bells for pro-lifers.
“They really have … a very extreme abortion agenda. So we kind of put two and two together and thought, ‘If they win, then they’re going to pull all this back,’” said Liebel, referring to existing FDA protections on the drugs.
The week before Thanksgiving 2020, Liebel and about a dozen other pro-lifers from national organizations including Americans United for Life, the Heritage Foundation, and Students for Life Action hosted a webinar attended by more than 100 state pro-life leaders to introduce a model bill to help states establish necessary protections in case the FDA scrapped federal ones. Since then, the group has held weekly meetings with state lobbyists to help coach them through the process of promoting the legislation.
In many states, legislation regulating the abortion pill only requires that abortionists follow the rules set by the FDA. “If that’s what your law says and there are no longer FDA regulations, then your law is no longer doing very much,” said Katie Glenn, a staff member from Americans United for Life.
Liebel called on Leslie Wolbert when Montana scheduled its first hearing for its version of the bill. Wolbert didn’t access the pill through telemedicine, but her testimony showed the limits of the existing safeguards. When she went to Planned Parenthood in November 2005, the staff gave her an ultrasound to check the baby’s gestation, observed her as she took the first set of pills, and sent her home with a brown paper bag containing the rest. They told her it would be like a heavy period. But the day after taking the second set of pills, Wolbert began bleeding severely and experienced both diarrhea and vomiting. For much of the process, she was home alone. She became delirious from pains she later realized weren’t much different from being in labor. At one point, it was so bad that Wolbert called the Planned Parenthood. The staff said what she was experiencing was normal and told her to go the hospital if it got worse.
While standing in the shower, she passed a large mass of blood that clogged the drain. Wolbert realized it was probably her baby. Not knowing what else to do, she picked it up and flushed it down the toilet. “The home where all this took place that was once a refuge for me became a murder scene,” she said in the video. “What I felt, saw, and touched that day can never be removed from my memory.”
Liebel was at the hearing when the video played for the gathered Montana House committee members. Afterwards, some of them told her Wolbert’s story was powerful and that she had been brave to tell it.
“The thing that humbles me the most is being able to work with these brave women who I know represent scores of many other women who are just not ready to talk about it,” Liebel said. “It’s truly a nightmare for them.”
She described the abortion pills as “a chemical coat hanger,” referring to the dangerous illegal abortions that lobbyist use to justify keeping the procedure legal: “And the abortion industry itself is promoting this.”
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