Untangling Ron Desantis’ debate anecdote about an improbable abortion survival story

When the topic of abortion came up during the first Republican primary presidential debate this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shared a perplexing anecdote about a woman he’d met who he said had survived the procedure.

“I know a lady in Florida named Penny,” DeSantis 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.”

Some accused the governor of fabricating the story.

“Let me see if I understand this correctly. Doctors tried to abort 'Penny' multiple times and discarded her in a pan, and then her grandmother took her to another hospital? DeSantis lies like a toddler,” one person posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Our research found that a woman named Penny, who tells an unusual birth story about an attempted abortion, does exist.

We asked DeSantis' campaign for evidence or more information. The campaign replied via email, sending only a link to a Daily Signal article that identified “Penny” by her full name and recounted her story.

The woman DeSantis referred to is Miriam “Penny” Hopper, an anti-abortion activist who said she survived an abortion attempt in Florida in 1955. Her claim, which is uncorroborated, has been featured online by Protect Life Michigan, an anti-abortion advocacy group.

In a video and in interviews, Hopper said she had been delivered around 23 weeks gestation after her mother went to a hospital in Wauchula, Florida, while experiencing bleeding. In a 2013 interview with radio station WFSU, Hopper said she believes an abortion had been attempted at home before her parents went to the hospital, which also could be why DeSantis referenced “multiple” abortion attempts.

Hopper said the doctor at the hospital induced labor, and she was born at 1 pound, 11 ounces, and was left in a bedpan. She told WFSU her grandmother later found her alive and was enraged about her being abandoned. Then a nurse volunteered to transport Hopper to what was then Morell Memorial Hospital in Lakeland, Florida, now the site of Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center. That's about 40 miles north of the hospital where Hopper said she was born.

Her story has been used to support “born alive” bills in state legislatures, which aim to protect infants that survive an abortion, even though there are federal laws for that purpose.

We were unable to gauge the accuracy of Hopper's account. We couldn't find records, such as news reports, dating to the 1950s, and people who could corroborate the story, such as her grandmother, are no longer living. Hopper did not respond to requests for comment.

Medically speaking, the scenario is dubious.

From the 1950s through 1980, “newborn death was virtually ensured” for infants born at or before 24 weeks of gestation, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says on its website.

Recent studies have shown wide variation in modern-day survival rates for infants born around 23 weeks, partly because of improved hospital practices for resuscitation and active treatment.

A University of Rochester Medical Center study published in 2022 found that between 2013 and 2018 babies born at 23 weeks — who were “actively treated” at academic medical centers in the National Institutes of Health-funded Neonatal Research Network — had nearly a 56% chance of survival.

This is considerably higher than the 23-week survival rate at many other institutions, as well as a previous study conducted from 2008 to 2012 in the same network, which put the rate at 32%. (Lifesaving care for babies born at 22 and 23 weeks varies by hospital policy and physician opinion, according to a New York Times article.)

Before the 1970s, most babies born before 28 weeks' gestation died because they lacked the ability to breathe on their own for more than a short time, and reliable mechanical ventilators for these infants did not yet exist. That also makes it improbable that Hopper could have survived for long without medical intervention when born at 23 weeks in the 1950s.

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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