How Wendy Davis Became America’s Conscience on Abortion

The Texas gubernatorial candidate didn’t flip-flop, she just voiced what a large percentage of Americans already think of this hot button issue.

02.18.14 10:45 AM ET

Wendy Davis, Texas gubernatorial candidate, and feminist icon in the making, recently came under fire for allegedly committing the cardinal campaign sin of flip-flopping. The alleged flip-flop in question is not on just any old issue either, but abortion, the issue that put Davis on the national political map.

Headlines on sites like Gawker, which previously cheered Davis’s exploits, trumpeted the perceived travesty, “Wendy Davis Is Pretty Much Fine With the Abortion Ban She Filibustered.” Meanwhile, Fox News blared, “Wendy Davis backs limited late-term abortion ban, despite historic filibuster.”

Though Gawker and Fox are not exactly known for sharing the same editorial point of view, the tone of the pieces on each site, and many others, were similar and can be summarized as follows: Wendy Davis wants to be elected governor of Texas so badly she is willing to change her positions on key issues to get there—including the issue that made her a progressive shero.

Only that’s not true. If Wendy Davis is guilty of any political sin at all it may be committing a small gaffe. And you know what they say in politics: A gaffe is when you accidentally tell the truth.

In a conversation with the Dallas Morning News editorial board, Davis did say that she was open to supporting a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, one of the measures included in the bill she famously filibustered. She also said, however, that she had problems with how this particular measure was worded, namely that it didn’t give enough power to a woman to make the decision with her doctor as opposed to the government simply making it for her. “My concern, even in the way the 20-week ban was written in this particular bill, was that it didn’t give enough deference between a woman and her doctor making this difficult decision, and instead tried to legislatively define what it was,” Davis said, according to the paper’s account.

She further noted to the editorial board that less than one percent of abortions occur after the 20-week mark and said that “I would line up with most people in Texas” in preferring not to see the procedure take place outside of extremely limited circumstances, namely when the mother’s health is in danger or the fetus is facing abnormalities. But Davis could have gone even further in her remarks. Not only does she line up with “most people of Texas” but most Americans.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, while 26 percent of Americans believe abortion should be permitted in all circumstances, 20 percent believe it should be illegal in all circumstances, but the majority of Americans, 52 percent, believe it should be permitted “in only certain circumstances.” But within that group there is a great deal of gradation—much of it tied to specific timelines within pregnancy. Despite more than half of Americans believing abortion should be legal in “certain circumstances,” 64 percent believe it should be illegal in the second three months of pregnancy. That number jumps to 80 percent in the final three months. That means that most Americans—including those who believe abortion should be legal—wouldn’t consider the Texas 20-week ban extreme, or unreasonable.

That’s likely because of another point that Davis made during her discussion with the editorial board. “The Supreme Court sets that viability and it probably will be revisited.”

It should be.

According to a 2011 BBC analysis, “Over the last 15 years tremendous progress in medicine has meant the survival rate of babies born in the 24th week or later has almost doubled.” This means that fetal viability seems to be evolving with science. (However, the same report also noted that among those born at the so-called “edge of viability” who survive a number have significant health problems that last a lifetime.) That means none of us know what viability will look like in another five to ten years.

The idea that Davis supporters or foes should get into a tizzy because she actually articulated the position of most Americans on abortion is silly. The idea that they would attempt to spin her nuanced response as politically calculating is even sillier. Nuance is rarely known to make for an effective political ad or to win votes in the current sound-bite heavy political climate, although our political landscape would be better if it did.

Like most Americans, her position on abortion is more complicated than the simplistic labels “pro-choice” or “pro-life” can adequately capture—which in part makes them increasingly useless in politics, something confirmed by a poll by reproductive rights organization Planned Parenthood. (Here’s a snapshot from the poll: 35 percent of those identifying as pro-life did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.)

What’s particularly frustrating about the faux controversy about Davis’s alleged flip-flop is it distracts from the bigger issues at stake in the current reproductive rights debate in Texas and beyond. The 20-week ban was arguably the least troubling part of the bill she filibustered the day she became a national progressive shero. The other measures included in the bill, including those that issued such stringent requirements on abortion providers that the end result made Planned Parenthood an endangered species in Texas, were much more troubling, because they help so many women in need—and not just those seeking an abortion, but those seeking birth control pills and breast exams.

If Davis made any misstep at all, it was the gaffe she made by simply telling the truth, which is that her position on abortion is like that of most thinking, feeling, Americans with a conscience. Most of those Americans are not fully “pro-choice” or “pro-life” but if given a say in the matter would probably describe themselves as “pro-it’s-complicated,” because life is messy and rarely black and white, and so our discussion of issues like abortion shouldn’t be framed as black and white either. Even if the discussion is being led by a rising feminist star.