The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Wilson shares pain of carrying stillborn pre-Roe: ‘We can’t go back’

Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said she’d ‘almost died’ during a pregnancy that ended in stillbirth in the late 1960s

During abortion debates Jan. 11, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) opened up about being forced to carry a dead baby to term in the late 1960s. (Video: The Washington Post)
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As Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) heard colleagues share personal experiences during abortion debates over her long career, the 80-year-old said, she considered telling her own story. But she said she didn’t want to relive her most painful incident.

While House members debated abortion-related legislation on Wednesday, Wilson opened up on the floor, saying that over five decades earlier, she’d “almost died” during a pregnancy that ended in stillbirth.

In a speech that lasted just over five minutes, Wilson said her baby was pronounced dead seven months into her pregnancy in the late 1960s. Because her pregnancy predated the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Wilson said, doctors were prohibited from inducing labor.

“I had to learn how, first of all, to handle the immense grief that comes with losing a child and the fact that the corpse of that child was still within me,” Wilson said. “I cried every night and all day. My little body was wretched with pain, weakness and frailty.”

Wilson, who has been a House member since 2011, has long supported abortion rights. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe in June, Wilson called it “a dark day in our history.”

While sharing her experience Wednesday, Wilson said she’d always wanted to have multiple children. When she became pregnant for the first time in her late 20s in 1969, Wilson said she was “ecstatic.” She said she and her late husband, Paul Wilson, often touched her stomach to feel the baby’s movements.

Seven months into her pregnancy, Wilson said, the movements stopped. Heartbroken to learn that her baby had “pronounced dead,” Wilson said, she crawled into her mother’s lap by day and her husband’s by night. She said the baby’s flesh entered her bloodstream, which made her susceptible to toxic shock syndrome.

Eight and a half months into her pregnancy, Wilson said, she went into labor and delivered her stillborn son. After three days of anguish, Wilson said, she exited the maternity ward in a wheelchair and cried watching other women with their newborns.

“I plead you,” Wilson said, on the verge of tears, “we can’t go back.”

Wilson had three more children, but she said her stillbirth haunts her, especially as states overturn their abortion laws. Florida now prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In Wednesday’s session, the Republican-led House passed two abortion-related bills. One condemns attacks on antiabortion facilities and groups; the other would require medical professionals to provide care to babies in the rare case they survive an abortion. Neither bill is expected to pass in the Senate.

“Abortion is maternal healthcare,” Wilson said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It’s not just about women deciding they’re not ready to be a parent, it’s also for those undergoing medical emergencies. That’s why it is so imperative that those decisions need to be left to a woman, her doctor and her God.”

House members share personal, at times painful, accounts of undergoing abortions in plea to preserve right to procedure

Several other House Democrats have shared personal stories since states began restricting abortion access. In a 2021 hearing, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) described traveling to Mexico as a teen for a “back-alley abortion.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said during the same hearing that she had an abortion after experiencing a high-risk pregnancy.

And in July, about a month after the 1973 Roe decision was overturned, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) shared in a political ad that she was raped and became pregnant at 17.

“That’s the start of my abortion story,” Bush said. “Millions more have their own.”

Wilson said Wednesday that members of the mostly male Congress should consider medical emergencies like hers when voting on abortion policy.

“May God help you find it in your heart to hear my story,” Wilson concluded, “and never wish that kind of pain and grief that I experienced on another living soul.”