Politics

02.13.14

Wendy Davis’s 20-Week Abortion Ban Compromise

The Texas state senator suggested she might support a 20-week abortion ban if it deferred to women and their doctors—and her position shouldn’t surprise us.

Earlier this week, Texas State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis made some waves by suggesting she might support a 20-week abortion ban in the state as long as it pays strong deference to women and their doctors. Davis told The Dallas Morning News editorial board: that less than one-half of one percent of Texas abortions occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Most of those were in cases where fetal abnormalities were evident or there were grave risks to the health of the woman. “I would line up with most people in Texas who would prefer that that’s not something that happens outside of those two arenas,” Davis said.

This would seem a bit of a shift for Davis, who of course rose to national prominence with her 13-hour filibuster to block a bill in the Texas legislature that included a 20-week ban. Davis now says that her primary objection to that bill, which ultimately became law, was not the 20-week provision but the onerous restrictions on abortion providers and clinics. Her statements on the matter came as a surprise to those in the state and nationwide who think of Wendy Davis as a champion of reproductive freedom.

But within what Davis said, there’s two things going on—one specific to how abortion politics are discussed in America, the other that applies to many Democrats running for office (and arguably some once they get in office—ahem, I’m looking at you, President Obama). 

First, we tend to have an insanely un-nuanced public debate about abortion even though it is an incredibly nuanced issue. Davis is correct that 98.5 percent of abortions in the United States are performed before 20 weeks. The small percentage of abortions that that happen after 20 weeks are often due to the heartbreaking discovery of fetal abnormalities or serious risks to the health of the mother. Davis’ objection to the Texas restrictions, which she reiterated this week, is that it tries to codify decision-making about later-term abortions into a law rather than it being a decision between women and their doctors. On that point, Davis has been consistent. 

But what she should have added is that the parts of the Texas law that also passed, in particular onerous restrictions on abortion providers in the state, led to one in three abortion clinics in the Texas shutting their doors. In addition, Texas had already restricted the use of public funds to help low-income women access abortions. But if you take away affordable, nearby options for women to access abortions, that doesn’t mean they suddenly stop having them. It means the procedure gets delayed if women need to take off work to travel to distant clinics and/or save up money for the procedure. This doesn’t drive down the number of abortions, it just pushes them later. Perhaps even after 20 weeks. As Amanda Marcotte wrote on this point:

Davis’ positions also reflect a healthy, libertarian-esque suspicion of government in not wanting politicians to be the ones making decisions about women’s bodies and families.

Still, most of the rest of the post-20-week abortions occur because it’s so hard to get an early term abortion in the first place, especially if you’re poor or geographically isolated, something that the new Texas law will make significantly harder. Davis’ stance means turning her back on women who get post-20-week abortions because they couldn’t get the money and time together to do it earlier—the women she was fighting for when she stood all those hours to keep clinics open so that women wouldn’t have to travel so far and wait so long in the first place.

If we actually want to reduce the number of abortion in Texas, we need to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies — which means supporting comprehensive sex education, universal access to contraception and Title X funding that helps low-income women access reproductive healthcare. These are all things Wendy Davis strongly supports, and which her Republican gubernatorial opponent Greg Abbott as well as current Texas Gov. Rick Perry oppose. Perry and Abbott are the ones driving women to later-term abortions by restricting all of their other options.

Texas political media should be making these points and so should Wendy Davis. Moreover and here’s my second point—instead of following the well-worn path of principled Democrats who think they have to compromise and tack to the middle to win elections, Davis should stand by her core beliefs and frame them as firmly in line with the strong libertarian streak in Texas. After all, not only are Davis’ positions here more pragmatic—in actually reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in Texas. Davis’ positions also reflect a healthy, libertarian-esque suspicion of government in not wanting politicians to be the ones making decisions about women’s bodies and families.

Davis has made this point before, in attacking Gov. Perry and the extremely restrictive anti-abortion policies he crammed through the Texas legislature. “He’s awfully fond of talking the talk of small government,” Davis said of Perry, “but this is big-government intrusion, there is no question about it.” Sure that also hints of centrist Democratic talking points attacking the role of government when we should be championing it, but at least it’s more in line with where Davis is at while being a winning electoral proposition in Texas—rather than messaging to appease anti-abortion voters in the state (who, newsflash, are never going to support her). And in politics, especially in the early stages of an election or policy debate, conviction is often more compelling than compromise—as we see with the still-strong influence of the Tea Party despite their waning actual power, and as the White House has finally seemed to grasp.

In a statement about Davis’ remarks this week, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said: “Wendy Davis is a champion for women, and all Texans. Her historic filibuster put anti-choice politicians in Texas, and across the country, on notice that we’re not going to let decision about our health care be a political football.” That’s right. Now Wendy Davis must stop tossing around her own views to try and score political points. Wendy Davis is on the right side of these issues in America and in Texas and should put back on those hot-pink running shoes and stand firm.