Ron DeSantis wanted to dodge a debate question about a six-week federal abortion ban. So the Florida governor pulled out a personal story, one that had recently become part of his pitch to voters on the need for greater regulation of abortion rights.
“I know a lady in Florida named Penny,” he said. “She survived multiple abortion attempts. She was left discarded in a pan. Fortunately, her grandmother saved her and brought her to a different hospital.” He then pivoted to attack Democrats for their abortion “extremism.”
The jarring anecdote caught the attention of viewers on social media, who speculated that Mr. DeSantis was fabricating the story.
But Penny does exist. Mr. DeSantis’s campaign says the governor has met her. She is Miriam Hopper, who goes by Penny and is an anti-abortion activist who lives in Florida and calls herself an “abortion survivor.”
The details of Ms. Hopper’s birth in 1955 are impossible to verify. But at least one prominent obstetrician noted that medical advances and practices had changed so dramatically in the nearly seven decades since then that her story had little relevance for the current debate about abortion rights and policy. At the time of her birth, abortion was illegal. Even an attempted abortion could have resulted in fines and imprisonment for a provider.
Ms. Hopper did not return a call for comment this week. But she told her story in an online video posted by Protect Life Michigan, an anti-abortion advocacy group. The video, part of a broader campaign, was posted in September 2022 amid a campaign against a ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights in Michigan’s Constitution. So-called abortion survivors have been a staple of the anti-abortion movement for years, frequently appearing in campaign ads and testifying on Capitol Hill in favor of federal abortion bans.
According to Ms. Hopper, her mother sought medical care at a clinic in central Florida in 1955 because of bleeding and other complications. She was 23 weeks pregnant, right at the outer edge of when a fetus is considered able to survive outside the womb. The doctor who examined Ms. Hopper’s mother said he could not hear a heartbeat. He induced labor, she said.
“You do not want this baby to live — if it lives, it will be a burden on you all of your life,” Ms. Hopper says the doctor told her parents before instructing a nurse to discard the baby — “dead or alive.”
Ms. Hopper said she had weighed one pound 11 ounces at her birth. The nurse “placed me in a bedpan on the back porch of the clinic,” she said. When her grandmother and aunt arrived, they found Ms. Hopper. Her grandmother called the police. A nurse helped take Ms. Hopper to a hospital in Lakeland, Fla., where she survived several bouts of pneumonia.
Ms. Hopper’s mother, aunt, father and grandmother have died. It does not appear that the incident was covered in news reports.
After an extended stay, Ms. Hopper went home and had a “great life.” She married her high school sweetheart, had two children of her own and has seven grandchildren. “Life has value, and all lives matter,” she said, at the end of the video.
In a 2013 interview with the Florida radio station WFSU, conducted in the middle of a statehouse debate over new abortion restrictions, Ms. Hopper said that her story was based on what she had been told by her family. She said that her father, raised during the Great Depression, did not want another child and that she suspected a botched abortion had sent her mother to the hospital with the complications.
Diane Horvath, an obstetrician and gynecologist who performs abortions until 34 weeks at a clinic in Maryland, said it was difficult to parse Ms. Hopper’s account.
“There’s a lot of parts of this story that don’t make sense to me,” she said, noting that 68 years ago, physicians had lacked the current-day technologies to keep very premature babies alive.
In the 1950s, death was “virtually ensured” when an infant was delivered at or before 24 weeks of gestation, according to a report published in 2017 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.
By contrast, a study conducted last year by a team of neonatologists found that nearly 56 percent of infants who are born at 23 weeks survive — if they receive aggressive treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Even if Ms. Hopper’s story is accurate, it’s not particularly germane to a discussion of current abortion practices or regulations, Dr. Horvath said.
“It doesn’t represent the reality of medical practice at this moment,” she said. “It’s not really relevant to what we should be talking about when we talk about access to abortion.”
Fewer than 1 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks’ gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such procedures are generally difficult to receive, with only a limited number of facilities offering them.
The Republican presidential primary debate wasn’t the first time Mr. DeSantis had told a version of this story. He debuted the narrative last weekend at a town hall in Nashua, N.H., amid a shift in his messaging that was meant to evoke a more personal touch.
The moment came in response to a question from a voter who described himself as a “traditional Catholic” and asked Mr. DeSantis, who has signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida and has tried to dodge questions on whether he supports a similar ban nationwide, how he would “protect the life of the unborn.”
Mr. DeSantis said he had met “Penny” in person in central Florida, and then launching into a similar version of the story he told on Wednesday night, including the details about Ms. Hopper’s grandmother and the pan, and trying to paint Democrats as the extremists on abortion.
“You know, that’s a very callous thing to happen,” Mr. DeSantis said. Most Democratic officeholders say the government should not legislate such decisions and should leave them to a woman and her doctor.
Ryan Tyson, a top DeSantis campaign adviser, said the governor was making an effort to talk more about the people he had encountered on the trail. His campaign did not provide details about the circumstances of his meeting with Ms. Hopper.
“He’s out there — he’s meeting people,” Mr. Tyson said in an interview after the debate. “He’s hearing their stories as he gets across the country. And I think that’s why you saw he had a moment there, because it does take a toll on you.”
Lisa Lerer is a national political correspondent, covering campaigns, elections and political power. More about Lisa Lerer
Nicholas Nehamas is a campaign reporter, focusing on the candidacy of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Before joining The Times, he was an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald. More about Nicholas Nehamas
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