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‘You represent us’: What it’s like to lobby for abortion rights from a red state

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‘You represent us’: What it’s like to lobby for abortion rights from a red state

Jun 23, 2024 | 4:00 pm ET
By Grace Panetta, The 19th
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‘You represent us’: What it’s like to lobby for abortion rights from a red state
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Yolenna Regmi poses for a portrait on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., in June 2024. Regmi was one of three storytellers from red states who lobbied staff for Republican representatives about abortion rights. (Grace Panetta/The 19th)

Yolenna Regmi was on a mission.

The 19-year-old college student from Nebraska was at the Capitol to lobby her representatives — all of them Republicans — for reproductive health. She cares deeply about comprehensive sex education and wants more access to abortion, including in red states like hers.

“I’m here, and I’m very passionate about what we’re doing,” she said.

This report was originally published by The 19th. The Illuminator is a founding member of the 19th News Network.

Regmi spoke to three Republicans’ offices throughout the day. Some staffers really listened, she said, while she felt others condescended to her.

She wasn’t too nervous going in. Her advocacy journey began with serving on the Teen Council at her local Planned Parenthood and over the years, she said, she’s gotten much more comfortable talking about sex education. If teenagers can speak openly about those topics, she reasoned, so can adult policymakers.

“In the past, that would have been so scary, but it pushed me to come out of my shell,” she said.

Regmi was among 17 advocates and storytellers from a dozen states who, through a program run by Planned Parenthood, came to the U.S. Capitol for a day of lobbying and advocacy rooted in their own experiences.

Personal stories have taken center stage in the legislative debates, campaign ads and the broader public discourse about abortion, especially since the Supreme Court ended a federal right to abortion nearly two years ago.

Three storytellers from red states, whom The 19th interviewed throughout the day, had the added challenge of talking to staff for Republican representatives whose opinions on abortion differed from theirs. While the Supreme Court sent the issue of abortion back to the states, Congress still holds tremendous power to shape reproductive health policy, including through federal funding.

The advocates hoped that direct conversations with congressional staff would put a human face to the complexities of abortion — and if not change minds, at least move the needle.

They came to the Capitol representing Iowa, Nebraska and South Carolina — states where the fall of Roe v. Wade paved the way for Republican lawmakers to pass new abortion bans. The three women also hail from the suburbs, representing demographics critical to the 2024 election.

But how much, they wondered, would their elected representatives listen?

Elizabeth Feldman, who came from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, began her day in the office of her congressman, Rep. Zach Nunn, a first-term Republican representing a competitive swing district.

“Politics in general kind of bore me,” said Feldman, 35. But her passion for reproductive rights has pushed her to speak up in her community and before state lawmakers in Des Moines.

“This is a turning point in our country. History is being made,” she said. “And I think it’s really important to take a stand.”

Elizabeth Feldman poses for a portrait in front of the office of Rep. Zach Nunn on Capitol Hill.
Elizabeth Feldman, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, began her day in the office of her congressman, Rep. Zach Nunn. (Grace Panetta/The 19th)

Feldman has written and testified about her religious upbringing, which included a time volunteering at an anti-abortion counseling center at the direction of her mother. In her 20s, she got pregnant and had already decided to have an abortion when she learned the pregnancy was ectopic, which is life-threatening if not treated.

Feldman said she was somewhat nervous about having a more direct one-on-one conversation with a congressional staffer, which was a different format from her previous legislative testimony. The Nunn staffer she met with, she said, heard her out, telling her that stories like hers “add dimension” to the abortion debate.

“He was very receptive to what I had to say and very polite,” she said.

Iowa lawmakers passed a six-week abortion ban in 2023, which is currently blocked pending a ruling from the state’s highest court. Feldman says abortion is a frequent topic of discussion in her community and among her friends, and she’s especially concerned about attacks on access to contraception. 

“I just want them to know that we’re out here, and we’re going to keep showing up,” she said of the message she hoped storytellers would send to lawmakers. “And whether you like it or not, you represent us.”

The Planned Parenthood National Storytellers Program, founded in 2018, currently has 131 members around the country.

“It can be scary, a little bit nerve-wracking. But the experience has been incredibly empowering,” Feldman said. “It makes me feel very much validated to be able to take the experiences that I’ve personally had and potentially make any kind of a difference with them.”

June 13, the day the 17 storytellers came to Capitol Hill, was already busy — the Senate voted on a Democratic bill on fertility treatment; across the street, the Supreme Court released a decision on medication abortion; and former President Donald Trump returned to the Hill to meet with Republican lawmakers.

But just like any other day, the Capitol complex was abuzz with activity from lawmakers, staff, reporters and throngs of visitors who descend on the Capitol every summer for tours. A group of senators and staff were also observing the chamber’s annual sartorial tradition of donning seersucker for the day. All along, congressional offices were doing the day-in, day-out work of meeting with constituents and advocacy groups who hoped to capture the Hill’s most precious resource: time and attention.

Regmi, a student at Loyola University in Chicago, grew up in Papillon, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha as a multiracial woman — “a minority amongst a minority.” In high school, she saw how her classmates and friends “suffered” from abstinence-only sex education programs. In many cases, those programs receive federal funding, something Regmi wants to change.

“It’s not realistic to keep pushing this abstinence-based program federally or statewide,” she said while sitting in a shady spot of the courtyard in the Russell Senate Office Building between meetings.

She views comprehensive sex education as a powerful tool to prevent unwanted pregnancies — and an opening into broader conversations about reproductive health with those who may disagree with her on abortion.

“Getting away from abstinence-based programs is the doorway in people aren’t thinking about,” she said.

In 2023, Nebraska lawmakers enacted a 12-week abortion ban that also included restrictions on gender-affirming care. Nebraskans could see up to three competing ballot measures on abortion access in the 2024 election, in which the state’s 2nd Congressional District also accounts for a critical vote in the Electoral College.

In addition to sex education, Regmi was advocating for more exceptions to Nebraska’s abortion ban to include fatal fetal abnormalities. “Even just expanding on exceptions is better than nothing,” she said.

Regmi said the staffer she met with from the office of Nebraska’s senior senator, Deb Fischer, was “condescending at times,” more focused on arguing with her on points of morality and ethics and debating her on hypothetical scenarios.

“I think that Nebraska has wonderful people, but on certain issues like this, it just really disappoints me and saddens me that they can’t be more supportive to women and their rights,” Regmi said.

Regmi still hopes Nebraska can be the state she wants it to be and that teens will receive better sex education than she did. Regmi, who is double majoring in political science and criminal justice, aspires to be an elected official herself and hopes to be a “guiding light” for other young people.

“I think that people shouldn’t be scared to say what they believe in, when you never know who’s listening,” she said. “You never know what opportunities are going to come to your door if you just say your values and speak up for people.”

On the other side of the Capitol complex, Lacey Layne had an afternoon meeting with a staffer in the office of her congressman, Republican Rep. Ralph Norman.

Layne, a 40-year-old school counselor from Fort Mill, South Carolina, was expecting her second child, whom she’d named Evan, in 2017 when she received a life-threatening fetal diagnosis. After getting that devastating news, Layne chose to end her pregnancy and receive “compassionate end-of-life care” for the fetus — a choice she may not be able to make today under her state’s abortion laws.

Lacey Layne poses for a portrait in front of the office of Rep. Ralph Norman.
Lacey Layne poses for a portrait before her afternoon meeting with a staffer in the office of her congressman, Republican Rep. Ralph Norman. (Grace Panetta/The 19th)

“Any decision I would have made, it would not have changed; I would not have had a living baby at the end,” she said. “So it’s hard when people are politicizing a health care decision.”

In the years following, as lawmakers attempted to pass new abortion restrictions, Layne saw warning signs of what was to come and began sharing her story with legislators.

In 2023, her fears came true when South Carolina lawmakers passed a six-week abortion ban, part of a significant erosion of abortion access in the South. The ban allows abortion with limited exceptions, including a threat to the patient’s life and a fetal diagnosis “incompatible” with life.

“I just think about all the moms out there that are receiving those devastating reports on their anatomy scans, and they have to figure out where to go or what to do,” she said. “And some of them have the privilege to travel for health care, and some of them do not.”

Layne said she appreciated talking one-on-one with a staffer from Norman’s office, as opposed to the more impersonal setting of committee testimony.

The staffer, she said, was empathetic to her story but still emphasized that Norman is opposed to abortion, in part because of experiences within his family and his own religious beliefs. As a constituent, Layne said she found it “concerning” that her congressman’s religion informs his policymaking.

Still, Layne sees value in sharing her story and using her experience to bridge gaps between people’s perceptions of what abortion is and how it applied to her, a married mother who was carrying a wanted pregnancy.

“I’m unfortunately well practiced in South Carolina. I believe I’ve testified about five times for this particular cause,” she said. “And I would say have grown confidence; there’s some empowerment there to know that I’ve had this experience, but I’m fortunate enough to be on the other side of it and able to share in a way that can hopefully make a difference.”