During last week’s GOP presidential debate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) tried to use the wild story of a woman who reportedly survived “multiple abortion attempts” to attack Democrats for supporting abortion access and defend his own stance against it. But it turns out there’s a lot more to the story, including the crucial fact that the person who first tried to end this pregnancy wasn’t a doctor but the woman’s own father—and that doctors did try to save the baby’s life. Instead of being an indictment of legal abortion, the story actually shows the lengths desperate people will go in order to end a pregnancy in the face of restrictive laws.
DeSantis spun the bogus tale in response to a question about whether Americans would accept the six-week abortion ban he signed in Florida. After first dodging the question and claiming Democrats are actually the extremists for supporting “abortion all the way up to the moment of birth” (there is no such thing), he pivoted to the rehearsed 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.”
Miami Herald investigative journalist Julie K. Brown looked into the life of Penny Hopper, the woman DeSantis referenced, and found that she was born in Wauchula, Florida, in 1955. That’s almost two decades before Roe v. Wade established a right to abortion and made the procedure legal in Florida. Hopper has said she was born at 23 weeks’ gestation, weighing just one pound and 11 ounces. She believes that her parents tried to abort her at home and were unsuccessful—but DeSantis conveniently left that part out.
Brown looked at Hopper’s previous statements, newspaper stories, public records, and also spoke to a family member who wanted to remain anonymous. (Neither Hopper or the DeSantis campaign responded to the Herald’s requests for comment.) Brown found that Hopper’s parents had their first child in 1953. Hopper has claimed in interviews that her parents got pregnant with a second child soon thereafter and her father used a coat hanger to end that pregnancy. Hopper has said that when the couple became pregnant a third time, her father again resorted to a coat hanger. She said he later told her that he was only earning $125 a week, which he felt couldn’t support additional children.
Hopper has said her mother developed complications from the coat-hanger abortion and the couple went to the hospital in the middle of the night, where a doctor said the fetus didn’t have a heartbeat. He reportedly told them the fetus would be stillborn and advised them to abort the pregnancy. He induced labor, and Hopper claims her grandmother found her on the hospital’s back porch the following day and called the police, after which point Hopper was transferred to a hospital in Lakeland. But news clippings seem to partially contradict this story of medical neglect, with one saying the hospital “put forth greater efforts to keep the 1 pound, 11 ounce baby alive,” and another saying “doctors advised incubation which was not available at Wauchula.” She remained in an incubator for four months and finally went home in March 1956.
Brown wrote that, yes, the saga shows how a woman survived a traumatic beginning, but it “also reflects the perils of a world where abortion is all but outlawed and women can be forced into dangerous, desperate alternatives.” Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the Herald that “banning abortion doesn’t stop people from needing or seeking abortions. It just leads to abortions outside the formal healthcare system.” Unlike in 1955, abortion pills exist now but people can be criminalized for using them.
Abortion is currently banned in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and the state Supreme Court could soon allow the more restrictive six-week ban to take effect. As abortion access dwindles even further across the South, more and more people will be driven to desperation.