Wendy Davis: "I would have and could have voted" to support a 20-week abortion ban

Davis' latest comments reveal the tightrope pro-choice politicians must walk when running in deep red states

Published February 12, 2014 9:35PM (EST)

Wendy Davis               (AP/Eric Gay)
Wendy Davis (AP/Eric Gay)

Wendy Davis said this week in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that she would support a ban on abortion at 20 weeks as long as such a measure gives "enough deference" to the pregnant patient and doctor making the decision.

“[The 20-week ban] was the least objectionable,” she said of the omnibus anti-abortion bill the Republican-controlled Legislature passed in 2013. “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 is running for governor in a deep red state as a candidate who came to national prominence during a filibuster in support of reproductive rights; no one doubts that she's in a tough spot. But Davis' comments about the 20-week ban will likely do very little to persuade single-issue voters in Texas that she isn't "extreme" on reproductive rights, and they actively contribute to the cultural stigma attached to basic medical care.

People who require abortion care don't need more stigma, particularly not from their political allies. As I've argued before, Davis is one of the most electrifying voices in the reproductive rights movement right now. It's for this reason -- because of her power as an advocate -- that her concessions to anti-choice normative values are such a letdown.

In her interview with the Dallas Morning News, Davis notes that "less than one-half of 1 percent of Texas abortions occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy," and that "most of those were in cases where fetal abnormalities were evident or there were grave risks to the health of the woman." But rather than stay on this point -- that these procedures are extraordinarily rare and usually the result of difficult decisions made by pregnant patients and their doctors -- she pivots to align herself with "most people in Texas" who oppose later-term abortion.

Yes, there are polls indicating that many voters support such limits on abortion, but few voters understand the realities facing women who require this care late into a pregnancy. Davis could do a lot of good by educating the public about those circumstances and insisting that these decisions -- because of the complicated personal, financial and medical reasons behind them -- be left to women and their doctors.

Davis' comment feeds into the assumptions too many Americans have about people who seek abortion care -- that they do so thoughtlessly. By accepting that a ban on abortion at 20 weeks could be reasonable policy, she is buying this lie -- and selling it to Texas voters.

The real tragedy of Davis' willingness to back away from such issues is that she's underestimating her power as a bridge-builder, as a relatable and compelling advocate who can bring common sense and nuance to how we talk about abortion care in the United States. Her filibuster inspired regular Texans to defend reproductive rights in their state because she helped them understand that they had skin in the game; her candidacy should do the same. 

What Davis can -- and should -- do is to take these issues head on. She is a uniquely qualified candidate to do such delicate work. She can address and acknowledge the complicated feelings many Americans have around abortion, while still speaking bluntly and without apology about why such decisions must be left to pregnant patients and their doctors.

A 20-week ban that gives "enough deference" to the unique circumstances behind each abortion is no ban at all. Davis likely knows that, she just needs to get comfortable saying as much. Texas voters can handle it.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Abortion Abortion Care Abortion Rights Reproductive Rights Texas Wendy Davis Women's Health Women's Rights