President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) listen on February 7, 2023 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The speech marks Biden’s first address to the new Republican-controlled House. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)
By Kelsey Leigh
Last week, I had the honor of being U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean’s, D-4th District, guest for the State of the Union address.
By this point, you’ve probably seen an abundance of political analyses of the night. Rather than add to the chorus, I want to share a different perspective with you: my personal reflections on being there as an abortion patient, a voter, a regular person.
In the past, I’ve watched this important ritual of American democracy on TV and found that the elected officials and their guests felt distant – like they were in a different class, untouchably important people close to the nexus of power. However, after being physically present in the Capitol on Feb. 7, I was reminded that our elected and appointed officials, even the most well-known, are just regular people like you and me.
Don’t get me wrong: I was in awe the entire evening, both in the privilege of being there and the experience itself. I felt the gravitas of the event and the place. I gasped each time I saw a trailblazer in the halls, like the first openly gay cabinet member and every progressive’s favorite “mayor,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
But as we shook hands, we talked about the weather and our families; we smiled and wished each other a safe and fun evening. After each interaction, I was reminded that even the most well-known and politically powerful people are still just that: people.
I know that the message of “politicians are people, too” may seem basic … and it is. Yet I find comfort and motivation in the thought. If they’re just regular people, then there’s no reason to keep us – you, me, and everyone we know – from speaking to our elected officials about the things we care about.
We know that when we show up and speak out, progress happens which benefits regular people like you and me. Like when we turned out to the polls in record numbers last November, resulting in progressive champions and reproductive health advocates being elected up and down the ticket (and a Democratic majority in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives.)
Now more than ever, let’s keep it up.
We need to keep saying the word abortion to reduce the stigma that surrounds it and ask our elected officials to do the same. We need to make sure that everyone is able to access the care that they need without the judgment that has led us to talk about “choice” instead of “abortion” for decades.
While abortion is legal in Pennsylvania, we know that legal doesn’t mean accessible so we need to uplift and work together with politicians who are committed to expanding access in meaningful ways.
In short, we’ve got work to do. And when we show up and focus our energy on connecting with progressive champions, we know we get it done.
It’s easy to get caught up in the spectacle of certain GOP members of Congress whose names I won’t deign to mention. Next time you catch yourself ruminating on outlandish stunts and fake fur coats, redirect yourself. Look to and and vocally support the elected officials who are doing real, substantive work.
So many of our elected officials from Pennsylvania and around the country are doing important advocacy to promote abortion access and reproductive health care. Let’s recommit to uplifting that work and celebrate the progress they continue to make in Washington and in Harrisburg. Let’s thank them for their advocacy. Let’s ask how we can help them continue to write good policy and pass good bills.
Our voices can be just as loud and just as powerful as anyone shouting from Congress’ floor during the State of the Union. I left that speech as inspired and invigorated as ever to use mine; I hope you’ll join me.
Kelsey Leigh, an abortion rights advocate, writes from Pittsburgh.
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