Everything about Sarah Lopez’s upbringing was conservative.
She was raised Catholic in a Hispanic family in El Paso, Texas, one of the most right-wing and complicated states in America. She went to a Catholic college in the state capital of Austin, more than an eight-hour drive from her border hometown, and initially considered becoming a journalist – but felt herself so drawn to people that she wanted to advocate for them, not simply tell their stories.
Nothing about Sarah Lopez’s life indicated that she’d end up testifying before Congress regarding one of the most controversial subjects in the country – drawing massive ire from the same conservative types she grew up around – when she boldly spoke about her own abortion and used the term “self-love” to describe her decision to terminate a pregnancy.
Ms Lopez’s occupation as an “abortion storyteller” – an advocate term that has increased in popular use since the Supreme Court’s shock overturn of Roe v Wade last month – added further fuel to the anti-abortion’s rally against the young Texan.
But telling her story is what Ms Lopez considers something akin to a calling – and a way to bridge gaps in an increasingly polarised society, putting a face to politics and a personal connection to an issue that is one of the most emotive politically, religiously, ethically, morally and even conversationally in modern history.
Of changing minds through humanising contentious issues, Ms Lopez tells The Independent: “I think the biggest example is, like, my parents … there were definitely anti-abortion, Catholic, you know, Hispanic folks – and like, now they’re out here donating to abortion funds.”
They altered their viewpoints after Ms Lopez told her story of being so upset and terrified of an unwanted pregnancy that she was taking work breaks to cry by a dumpster.
“If you’re just going in to, like, change someone’s mind, I don’t think there’s going to be any success there,” Ms Lopez says, but “when there’s mutual respect involved, and, like, where people can really sit down, and … lean into that discomfort and have a conversation, I think, you know, I think that’s the best I’ve come up with.”
She believes that, at the root of the abortion debate, is “power and control”.
“It has been twisted and turned,” she says, adding: “I don’t think of abortion as, like, political; I think of it as healthcare that has been politicised.”
Ms Lopez got involved in abortion advocacy after her own procedure in 2017. She became pregnant around graduation from St Edward’s University, while she and her boyfriend were living with multiple people, working in restaurants and unprepared to be parents, she says.
Scheduling an abortion appointment was “nerve-wracking” and “emotional” – even just making a phone call, she says. And that was before the restrictions that have intensified to the point that almost anyone who needs an abortion in Texas will have to leave the state.
When Ms Lopez had her procedure, the clinic was only 15 minutes from her Austin home. But there was still a mandated waiting period, a required ultrasound and anti-abortion counselling providers were made to share.
“My provider told me … ‘The state requires that I tell you: Abortion causes breast cancer, depression and infertility.’ But I still distinctly remember that he had, when he finished telling me that, he was like, ‘I cannot make be more clear: The state requires that I tell you that, but abortion is 100 per cent safe.’”
She thought those rules were severe and traumatising; they were nothing, however, compared to the current situation, which intensified in Texas and other red states after the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that had enshrined abortion care in American federal law.
Last month’s decision left it up to the states to decide abortion legislation, with some, such as Texas – where Ms Lopez still lives – almost immediately banning all procedures to end an unwanted pregnancy.
“I truly have no idea what I would do” now, if she’d found herself in the same situation she did while finishing college, Ms Lopez tells The Independent. “Every single day that I was pregnant … really felt like torture. I felt like a stranger in my own body, like I was a total mess.”
She says: “I was working in restaurants [and] there were … a few times where I would just, like, have to go to the dumpster and, like, break down crying – because I just hated my situation … I felt so isolated and so lonely back then, and I really don’t even … I just can’t even think about what I would have done” if Roe v Wade had been overturned at the time she found herself pregnant.
Within a year of her own procedure, Ms Lopez started dedicating herself to helping others who needed abortions in an effort to support people through an experience that had made her feel shameful and stigmatised – and all of those feelings, eventually, led Ms Lopez to testify before the House Oversight Committee on 13 July.
“Having an abortion was the easiest decision I’ve ever made,” she told the Congressional committee last month. “It was transformative, it was liberating, it was an act of self-love.”
She knew the risks she was taking when she testified; she scrubbed her social media beforehand, but people still found her online.
“I got the call to go to DC, I think, like, the Thursday before the hearing,” she tellsThe Independent, continuing: “And then Tuesday afternoon, I was in DC and I barely slept that whole week. Honestly, I was so scared. I was like, how do I do justice, really, to the people who need care right now?”
She continues: “I was putting myself perhaps in the most vulnerable position I’ve ever put myself in … I’ve never really been subjected to scrutiny in, like, this way. And so I also thought about … my safety and my boyfriend’s safety and like, our home.”
Listening to people giving opinions or “misinformation” from the other side, she says, made “the hearing itself … a little brutal.”
People went after her online, and she stayed as much as possible off social media, not entirely expecting the brouhaha that resulted when conservative outlets started playing some of her statements on repeat. Some critics found her personal information; she has yet to deal with a major in-person threat, she says.
But she’s remained steadfast in her motivations to speak on an international stage, thinking of “all the people who desperate really needed this time-sensitive, life-saving healthcare and are being forced to … continue pregnancies they either don’t want to continue, or that they literally cannot without facing” serious and potentially fatal medical consequences.
Despite the online furore and backlash against her testimony, Ms Lopez, as she mentioned, is more than accustomed to sharing her views with the other side of the aisle.
“I mean, I’ve failed,” she tells The Independent, adding that the particular scrutiny of her testimony has “really made me think about … just like how different everyone’s circumstances are, but [also] how like, misinformation can maybe, like, skew that.”
Many of her conservative relatives were fans of former president Donald Trump and his vocal right-wing rhetoric, she says, but real conversations and open dialogue can counter – at times – some of the political polarisation within America, she feels.
“As far as my parents go, like, they have really … just come such a long way,” Ms Lopez says. “And like, honestly, they really only found out I had an abortion, like, last year. And … I just was able to have like, a loving conversation with them.
She adds that, “even though they … said a couple things that, I know, came from just like wanting to understand more, or, like, not wanting to be harmful, like it really just required us to, like, sit down and like have an uncomfortable conversation.”
She reiterates her belief that “you can’t change anyone’s mind, but … you can have conversations that come from a place of love and understanding.”
Ms Lopez continues: “If family members reject that, if they use that to, like, go one step further in their … bigotry or hatefulness, then, like, I think that’s very telling and … you kind of have to cross that bridge when you get there.”
She does believe that dialogue, to some extent, can build such bridges, even when it comes to such a completely controversial subject. And she feels a responsibility to other patients after dealing with people from many walks of life in her work with Jane’s Due Process, where she is youth program manager at the nonprofit that “helps young people in Texas navigate parental consent laws and confidentially access abortion and birth control,” according to the group’s website.
The site currently features a new popup warning: “Jane’s Due Process is pausing all services and support related to abortion care because of the uncertainty of the current state of the laws in Texas based on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs. We deeply hope this uncertainty is resolved quickly so we can resume helping young people in Texas.
“Safety Alert: Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you need to exit this website in a hurry, hit the ESCAPE key twice.”
Ms Lopez says that advocates such as herself, people of child-bearing age and other groups are all currently “just really scared” in Texas.
“And they don’t know what to do,” she tells The Independent. “And they feel abandoned … that general confusion and the feeling of abandonment, especially if … you can’t afford it, if you can’t get off work, if you’re in an unstable relationship, if, like, you’re struggling … to support the children you do have.”
She says: “When Roe got overturned and … [the system] just kind of keeps failing, [you think] things can’t get worse, right? Like, someone’s going to step in.”
“Everybody in Texas on the ground, especially, like, in the Rio Grande Valley, on the border, they are doing like everything they can, working around the clock to make sure their people, their communities, feel supported.”
“But, like, these are just people,” she adds. “These are just our communities that have been stepping in to fill the gaps while we, you know, essentially got abandoned by the state. And so I think it’s just very difficult.”