Fran, a retired teacher and school administrator, narrates South Carolina Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham’s newest campaign ad. She tells a deeply personal story of surviving a brutal rape — and getting an abortion — shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision in early 1973.
Fran says she was raped by two adult men who sent her home “walking in the dark, bleeding, and in pain.” She told no one about the assault but later discovered she was pregnant — and had an abortion without anesthesia.
“Roe versus Wade gave me the opportunity to become an educator, a mother and grandmother,” Fran says in the ad. “I did what was best for an 88-pound 12-year-old with no other options. I am a survivor of rape: My body is not yours, and it is not the state’s, it’s mine — yet our governor, Henry McMaster, wants to ban all abortions.”
Cunningham’s new ad, shared first with The 19th, is one of over a dozen Democratic television and digital advertisements that center on deeply personal, sometimes painful, abortion stories from patients and providers.
Democratic candidates and outside groups have spent millions on ads focusing on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
Many of their ads contrast stories like Fran’s with the positions of Republicans who have backed abortion bans with few or no exceptions, stances Democrats are hammering as extreme and out of step with the American people. Overwhelming majorities of voters oppose the overturning of Roe and strict abortion bans, especially those without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the patient, recent polls show.
“Victims of trauma do not owe anyone their story, but stories like Fran’s remind us of the cruel, dangerous impact that abortion bans will have on women and girls in South Carolina,” Cunningham, a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, said in a statement to The 19th.
2022 is not the first election cycle in which political ads have featured abortion stories. First-person abortion stories and testimonials have been a bedrock of abortion rights activism for decades, going back to the “speakouts” and public demonstrations held by activists in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the rise of formal campaign ads based on personal abortion stories illustrates not just the salience of abortion for Democratic campaigns since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, but the Democratic Party’s broader evolution in messaging on the issue.
“Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to talk about abortion — and sharing personal abortion stories affirms why we need to protect this fundamental freedom,” said Gabby Richards, director of federal advocacy communications at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
The language around abortion has morphed from advocating for abortion to be “safe, legal and rare” in the 1990s to vowing to protect “reproductive rights” in more recent years. Now, Democrats are explicitly using the word “abortion” in ads across the board — and bringing raw, deeply personal, and once seldom-told stories directly to the voters.
“For as long as I can remember, it was always ‘reproductive health care,’ alluding to abortion without actually saying abortion,” Richards said. “But now, it’s become easier for people to actually say abortion because that’s exactly what we’re talking about.”
Earlier this year, five Democratic members of Congress shared their abortion stories with Elle. One of them, Rep. Jackie Speier, publicly shared her own story of ending a wanted, but unviable, pregnancy for the first time on the House floor in 2011.
Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents an Oakland, Calif., area district, recalled her mother taking her across the border into Tijuana, Mexico, so she could get an abortion prior to Roe v. Wade. And Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri shared for the first time that she got an abortion after being raped at age 17.
Bush, who represents a state that banned abortion immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, again highlighted her abortion story in a campaign ad she aired ahead of her August 2 primary election.
“Let me be clear: Forced pregnancy is a crime against humanity,” she says. “When an extremist court dictates what we can do with our bodies, that’s violence.”
Abortion stories are appearing in attack ads in hotly contested battleground races, including the Senate race in Arizona between Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters, who has erased language from his website that had said he supported “fetal personhood” laws that would treat abortion as murder.
An ad aired by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Arizona features a woman named Jennifer, who says she got an abortion at 14 while in an abusive relationship.
“Choosing to end the pregnancy wasn’t easy, but it was the right choice for me. It’s personal, it’s complicated,” she says. “Blake Masters has no idea what I went through, and he has no business making that decision for me.”
Several other ads aired this cycle also highlight the impossible choices and tough medical realities that come for patients and families who make the decision to end unviable or life-threatening pregnancies.
“We had multiple tests and doctor visits. We wanted this baby. But both the baby and me were at risk,” a woman named Courtney Bennett says in a recent ad opposing an anti-abortion constitutional amendment on the ballot in Kentucky. “It’s an impossible decision. I can’t imagine a politician making it for me.”
Jamie Cheney, who ran in the Democratic primary for a House seat in Upstate New York this year, ran an ad about her choice to end a pregnancy while fighting a rare immune infection that she said made her “very, very sick.”
“Those rights were not hypothetical to me, and they’re not hypothetical to women today,” Cheney, who lost her primary, said in the ad.
Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes dedicated an ad, aired in July, to his mother LaJuan’s story of choosing to terminate her first pregnancy due to the health risks. Barnes is running against the Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson, who has said he agrees with the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs.
“It was my decision, not some politician’s,” Barnes’ mother says in the ad.
In Nevada, a NARAL member named Kristin told her story of ending a pregnancy in a campaign ad for Nevada’s Democratic attorney general, Aaron Ford. Ford, seeking a second term, is one of several Democrats running in competitive races in Nevada, a battleground state where abortion is looming large on the campaign trail.
“Tests revealed my baby would not have survived a week, and the birth itself would have been dangerous, so I chose to have an abortion,” Kristin says.
Other Democratic campaign ads and videos have featured the stories of women from previous generations — including those who obtained illegal and often dangerous abortions before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
In a new ad from Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and the DSCC, a woman named Susan shares how an illegal abortion she received in 1968 at age 21 sent her to the hospital with severe bleeding, calling it a “horrifying experience.”
“I’m telling my story now because young girls won’t remember what it was like to not be able to have an abortion,” Susan says.
Wiley Nickel, a Democrat running in a competitive U.S. House race in North Carolina, aired an attack ad against his Republican opponent, Bo Hines, narrated by Betty, a woman who recounts receiving a dangerous illegal abortion performed on a dining room table before Roe v. Wade.
“It nearly killed me,” she says. “Now, Hines wants to outlaw abortion again. “Bo? Hell no.”
Royce Duplessis, a Democratic candidate for state Senate in Louisiana, shared his own family’s story in a campaign video to illustrate how an unsafe abortion can leave intergenerational scars.
Duplessis’ mother Hedy is the narrator, detailing how her grandmother Lilly nearly hemorrhaged to death after a self-induced abortion, struggled with intense guilt and shame, and died at the age of 24, leaving an 8-year-old daughter to survive her.
“The women of Louisiana today have no more control over their bodies than my great-grandmother had over hers more than a century ago,” Duplessis says. “And because of that, there will be more trauma, violence, and grief.”
This story originally misstated which part of California Rep. Barbara Lee's district is in.