Though she chose to give birth after both of her pregnancies, Joe Cheray valued her ability to make her own decisions in her reproductive health journey, especially since her bodily autonomy has been stolen by men starting at an early age and throughout her life.
“When Roe v. Wade was in place, I had the choice, period. It was my choice to keep my son. It was my choice to give my first son up for adoption,” Cheray said.
Throughout each traumatic event in her life, Cheray said she, and no one else, decided how she would move forward.
Cheray, now 50, is a survivor of child neglect and abuse, molestation, rape, domestic violence and houselessness.
Cheray grew up in Baileyville, a small town in Nemaha County, Kansas with around 250 people at the time.
When she was 3 years old, the state declared her parents unfit to care for her and her three brothers due to her biological mother’s neglect. Her father killed himself in their home living room the same day the kids were taken by the state.
After spending two to three years in the foster care system, Cheray and her siblings went to live full-time with their maternal grandparents when she was 6 years old.
The kids were all together now, and Cheray maintained a good relationship with her grandmother, even thinking of her as her mom. But Cheray was not at all safe in that house.
From ages 10 to 15, Cheray’s grandfather sexually, physically and emotionally abused her, she said. He had already been physically abusing her prior.
When she was 12 years old, Cheray said, her grandfather attempted to rape her but did not go through with it. She said she firmly believes that if he had, and if she had become pregnant as a result, she would have been both ostracized and stripped of choice.
“During the time that I was being molested, I wouldn’t have had a choice on what I would have done with that baby,” Cheray said.
Fortunately, Cheray did not face that situation. But under current Kansas law, minors must have signed and notarized consent from at least one parent or legal guardian to obtain an abortion. The law states that “If the minor’s pregnancy was caused by sexual intercourse with the minor’s natural father, adoptive father, stepfather or legal guardian, then the written consent of the minor’s mother shall be sufficient.” (The term “rape” is not used in that statute.) If a parent will not consent, minors must go through a court process to try to obtain a waiver if they wish to seek an abortion.
‘This is not happening anymore’
One day, at age 15, Cheray had reached her final straw living with her abusive grandfather. She told her grandmother she was heading on a bike ride while her grandfather was taking his regular Sunday nap. She grabbed a pocket knife, took her bike, and never looked back.
Cheray said she biked 6 miles to a school counselor’s house in a neighboring town and pleaded for help. She was desperate and willing to do anything to save herself.
“I told her, I said, ‘I’m not going home … I’m either going home in a body bag or I’m going to prison today,’” Cheray said. “I said, ‘You have a choice. You can either help me or you can watch me kill myself … either way, this is not happening anymore.’”
The counselor was worried about “aiding and abetting a runaway,” Cheray said, but she finally agreed to help and call police.
That day, Cheray escaped that abusive household. She ended up in and out of foster homes and later moved to Topeka in 1988 to live with her biological mother for a little while.
But even after escaping her grandfather, Cheray would continue to experience sexual and domestic violence from the men in her life. She said she was raped by an ex at age 17, and by a stranger in Topeka at age 22.
‘There was no way I could keep him’
Cheray became pregnant for the first time at age 18 due to failed birth control. She said the condom slipped, and she and her ex were not using other consistent birth control methods.
Though the pregnancy was unexpected, Cheray decided not to get an abortion — but “I was so messed up still from the sexual abuse and the rape that there was no way I could keep him,” she said. She gave birth in 1990 via cesarean section and chose to place the baby for adoption.
The birth resulted in an infection around the scar tissue, and she thought this would impact her ability to become pregnant again.
After living in a violent relationship for a few years, Cheray moved to Great Bend, Kansas, where she met the man who would become her second son’s father — and began what she said would prove to be another tumultuous relationship.
Cheray then began to experience reproductive health concerns when she developed a cyst on one ovary when she was 25 or 26. She underwent surgery to have it removed, losing both the ovary and fallopian tube. Between the infection after her C-section and this, she thought for sure she had lost her ability to ever get pregnant, so she stopped using birth control altogether.
‘No one chose for me’
But then she got pregnant with her son Anthony in 1999. She felt she was as ready as she’d ever be to become a mom, and she chose to carry her pregnancy out.
“I decided to keep him because I thought, ‘I do have job skills underneath my belt. So, I do have a way to support us if things go south,’” Cheray said.
She decided to take a chance and give birth to Anthony naturally. That’s known as a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), which can be preferable for some patients, but it can also be risky.
During labor, Cheray said, her son went into cardiac arrest and lung failure and had to be rushed to Children’s Mercy.
Anthony, now 22, lives with cerebral palsy, motor skill development issues, speech impairment and hearing impairment, Cheray said.
Tensions came to a head one day in a conflict with Anthony’s father, and Cheray left with Anthony, who was a baby at the time. She and Anthony then had to move in and out of several women’s shelters in the Kansas City and Topeka areas.
While living in Lawrence in 2001, Cheray received the news that her grandmother died. She called the following weeks the toughest time in her life as she was mourning one of the closest people to her while having to revisit past trauma and tend to current hardships.
“[I was] trying to juggle living in a shelter and taking care of Anthony and then having to deal with the whole dynamic of my grandfather and my bio mom, and being homeless for the most part,” Cheray said.
More health concerns later arose for Cheray. She began developing pre-cervical cancer, which required treatment twice. Finally, in 2012, she decided to have a hysterectomy — which removes the uterus and causes the patient to no longer menstruate or have the ability to become pregnant — because cysts had begun forming on her left ovary.
“I was just like, ‘I’m done, I can’t do this anymore’ … They’re like, ‘Are you sure, are you done having kids?’ I said, ‘I am a single parent to a child with special needs. I’m done,’” Cheray said. “… Things have calmed down quite a bit since all of that happened.”
‘I have no fear anymore’
Cheray’s grandfather and biological mother have since died, which Cheray said has allowed space for some much needed healing.
“All of those experiences just kind of made me a very determined person, and I have no fear anymore because the man that hurt me the most — he’s gone,” Cheray said.
With Roe v. Wade overturned and Kansas about to be the first state to vote on abortion rights since, Cheray said her experiences have contributed to her stance on abortion justice and the “power of choice.”
“I chose life for both of my sons,” Cheray said. “I chose. No one chose for me.”
Cheray said she is voting “no” to the constitutional amendment regarding abortion on the upcoming Aug. 2 ballot, and she encourages everyone to do the same. Whether the amendment passes or fails, no laws will immediately change, but advocates pushing for the amendment to pass have said a ban is the ultimate goal, and that legislators are prepared to enact a law to do just that.
“We already have had our rights taken away as women with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and here in Kansas we’d have no recourse (if the amendment passes) … and so it’s very important that we women everywhere say ‘no’ on the ballot,” Cheray said.
After all she’s endured in this life, Cheray continues to press on with every ounce of her being. She and Anthony are living together in Topeka. Cheray has even decided to run for Kansas House of Representatives District 53, which represents part of Shawnee County, this term.
“I tell people, I have no idea how I’m still standing today because [of] everything that I’ve gone through … I don’t know what keeps me going. I just keep going,” Cheray said.
“I don’t know any other speed except just keep moving forward, and I don’t know what it is. I just keep going, one foot in front of the other — that’s what I tell myself every day I get up.”
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The “Value Them Both” amendment would pave the way to a complete ban of abortion in Kansas despite language implying otherwise, panelists said Saturday. If the majority votes “yes” in August, legislators could ban abortions even in cases of rape, incest, and risk of death.