What everyone has forgotten about Wendy Davis' famous filibuster
Hint: It wasn't really about stopping a 20-week ban on abortions
In some ways it's refreshing to have a female, and a Democrat, get caught in a swirl of controversy over a comment on abortion. The candidate in this case is Wendy Davis, who's running an underdog campaign for governor of Texas. Davis rose to national (and Texas-wide) prominence for staging an 11-hour filibuster against a sweeping anti-abortion bill in the Texas legislature. The package of restrictions included a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.
On Tuesday, Davis told The Dallas Morning News that, with some modifications, she would have been fine with the 20-week ban on abortions. Texas already had a 24-week ban, and less than one-half of 1 percent of abortions occur that late, usually in cases where a fetus has a severe (often fatal) abnormality or the mother's health is in danger. "I would line up with most people in Texas who would prefer that that's not something that happens outside of those two arenas," she told the newspaper. Then she added:
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... I would have and could have voted to allow that to go through, if I felt like we had tightly defined the ability for a woman and a doctor to be making this decision together and not have the Legislature get too deep in the weeds of how we would describe when that was appropriate. [Davis, via The Dallas Morning News]
Collectively, the internet lost its mind. Liberals accuse Davis of selling out the abortion-rights movement or, more benignly, playing politics with an important issue. Conservatives accuse her of flip-flopping. Wendy Davis, says Noah Rothman at Mediaite, with touching concern, "appears to have given up on so many of the positions that made her a Democratic superstar in the first place." That would be her famous filibuster.
But here's the thing: Davis' filibuster wasn't really about the 20-week ban. It's not why she became a Democratic star (and surprisingly proficient fundraiser). It's arguably not even really a change in her stated view on abortion. Her position appears to be: Sure, ban late-term abortion-as-birth-control, but let the people who decide whether the abortion is necessary for medical purposes be the pregnant woman and her doctor, not lawmakers and their unintended consequences.
Is that Davis' preferred position or just a politically expedient one? I have no idea. But as she told The Dallas Morning News, the 20-week ban, even with its current restrictions, "was the least objectionable" part of the abortion package.
Much more concerning for abortion-rights supporters were measures that require abortion clinics to meet expensive new zoning specifications and all abortion providers to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital. The former provision is projected to close all but five of the 42 abortion clinics in the state, while the latter effectively freezes traveling abortion providers from working in the state, or gives hospitals effective veto power over a legal procedure.
Those provisions rise to the threshold at which you might stage an 11-hour, on-topic, standing filibuster. A 20-week ban? Probably not.
In any case, it wasn't even really the abortion issue that got Democrats excited — it was the filibuster. Texas Democrats haven't had much to be excited about for almost two decades. The last Democratic (and female) governor, Ann Richards, lost to George W. Bush in 1994. No Democrat has held statewide office in more than a decade. Aside from the Castro brothers from San Antonio — Mayor Julian and U.S. Rep. Joaquin — there are no other bona fide Democratic stars in the state.
What Wendy Davis did that not even the Castro twins can is stop the indomitable Texas Republicans, if only for a few weeks. And she did it by herself, in a grueling test of mental and physical endurance. She may turn out to be a dud of a candidate, or she may be the Lone Star State's next governor, but let's not pretend that she filibustered to preserve a four-week window for late-term abortions.
Besides, the focus on Davis' abortion comments obscured the more interesting news that Davis is open to decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and, if the voters approve, allowing medical marijuana. "I don't know where the state is on that, as a population," she said. "Certainly as governor I think it's important to be deferential to whether the state of Texas feels that it's ready for that."