MIAMI — When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked during last week’s GOP presidential debate whether he would support nationwide abortion restrictions, he instead offered a startling anecdote.
“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 offered no other details and the debate moderators moved on. But according to news reports, doctors who reviewed her case and an interview with the woman, the story is far more complicated than DeSantis made it sound.
It dates to 1955, a vastly different time both medically and socially. Abortion was largely illegal, including in Florida, contraception options were few and babies born at an extremely early gestational age were not expected to survive. Anti-abortion groups often use stories like this to argue against abortion. DeSantis also has frequently criticized abortions later in pregnancy on the campaign trail as he seeks to court GOP primary voters.
Decades later, there’s little way to verify the details of what exactly happened. That raises questions about the story’s relevance to the nation’s ongoing battle over abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year and debates over abortions later in pregnancy — especially when experts say such procedures are exceedingly rare and often involve severe complications.
The woman is 67-year-old Miriam “Penny” Hopper, a Florida resident who has been told that she survived multiple abortion attempts when she was in the womb. The first, she said in an interview, was by her parents at home and the second by a local doctor who instructed a nurse to discard her in a bedpan after inducing her birth at just 23 weeks gestation.
Hopper said she learned through her father that her parents tried to end the pregnancy at home. There were complications, and they went to the hospital. As the story goes, the doctor did not hear a heartbeat, gave her a shot and instructed the nurse to discard the baby “dead or alive.”
Hopper said she was born and made a squeaky noise but was put on the back porch of the hospital. She said her grandmother discovered her there alive the following day, wrapped in a towel, and she was rushed to another hospital. Hopper was told she stayed there for three-and-a-half months and survived with the help of an incubator. Nurses nicknamed her “Penny” because of her copper-red hair.
“My parents had always told me all my life, ‘You’re a miracle to be alive,'” she said.
Hopper has used her story to partner with anti-abortion organizations nationwide. But doctors who reviewed the story said her birth did not appear to be an attempted abortion and questioned the accuracy of the presumed gestational age.
When Hopper was born in the 1950s, before major advances in care for premature infants, babies born at 23 weeks would have had very little chance of surviving. Even into the early part of this century, the generally accepted “edge of viability” remained around 24 weeks. A pregnancy is considered full-term at 39 to 40 weeks.
Several OB-GYNs said it appears the case was treated as a stillbirth after a doctor was not able to detect a heartbeat. Because the fetus was presumed dead, the procedure performed in the hospital would not be considered an abortion, said Leilah Zahedi-Spung, a maternal fetal medicine physician in Colorado.
A newspaper article documenting Hopper’s miraculous recovery in 1956, the year after her birth, also complicates the tale. The story in the Lakeland Ledger says doctors at a hospital in Wauchula “put forth greater efforts” in keeping the 1 pound, 11 ounce baby alive before she was escorted by police to a larger hospital. She was admitted and placed in an incubator.
“It sounds very much like they anticipated a stillbirth. And when she came out alive, they resuscitated that baby to the best of their abilities and then shipped her off to where she needed to be,” Zahedi-Spung said.
Another news article from The Tampa Tribune said “doctors advised incubation which was not available at Wauchula,” leading to her transfer.
Hopper disputes that doctors initially tried to save her: “I don’t think there was any effort really put forth.”
OB-GYNs who reviewed the details also raised questions about Hopper’s gestational age at birth, saying her recorded birth weight more likely matches a fetus several weeks further along, around 26 or 27 weeks. They said the lungs are not developed enough to breathe at 23 weeks without intense assistance, making it improbable such an infant could survive abandonment for hours outdoors.
Pregnancies were very difficult to accurately date in 1955, before ultrasounds were used for medical purposes, said Mary Jane Minkin, a gynecologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.
Hopper acknowledged there is little documentation about her birth aside from the newspaper clippings. Her parents have died, and the county would not share her birth records.
She confirmed she was the person DeSantis was referring to but would not say whether she’s met or spoken with the governor.
“I’m not going to get into that because I don’t want to mudsling in politics,” she said. “This story is about abortion and surviving abortion.”
Scrutiny on DeSantis’ debate anecdote comes at a time when he is struggling to maintain his distant second-place stature in the Republican nominating contest. He has promoted his staunch opposition to abortion to curry favor with conservative voters, although he avoided a direct answer when asked at the debate if he favors a national ban on abortions at six weeks of pregnancy. He signed such legislation earlier this year in Florida.
“We’re better than what the Democrats are selling,” DeSantis said onstage during the Fox News debate. “We are not going to allow abortion all the way up till birth and we will hold them accountable for their extremism.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Medical experts generally say the idea of abortion “up to birth ″ is misleading. They say terminations later in pregnancy are very rare and typically involve medication that induces birth early, which is different from a surgical abortion. They typically happen only if the fetus has a low probability of survival, experts say.
In 2020, less than 1% of abortions in the U.S. were performed at or after 21 weeks of pregnancy, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Especially with improvements in medical technology, the likelihood of an infant being born alive after an abortion is slim to none, said Mary Ziegler, law professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law and a leading historian on the abortion debate.
But such stories continue to resonate. Similar abortion “survivor” anecdotes have been used by anti-abortion groups during legislative debates over so-called “born-alive” measures. Those measures require doctors to give life-sustaining care in the extremely rare case an infant is born alive after an attempted abortion.
Proponents of expanding access to abortion also promote stories that pack an emotional punch, especially since the Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections for the procedure.
Women have been forced to carry babies with fatal fetal anomalies to term or have been turned away from hospitals and had to go out of state for abortions. Those stories are more relevant to the current abortion debate, said Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a national group that advocates for abortion access.
“This is happening right now, not a story from 50 years ago that has absolutely nothing to do with abortion today,” Hearron said.
Fernando reported from Chicago and Swenson from New York. Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York and AP Science Writer Laura Ungar contributed to this report.
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