This week, a Texas House of Representatives committee voted to send a new abortion bill to the full House for a vote next week. The Senate has scheduled a Monday morning hearing on a separate but identical bill. Last week, State Senator Wendy Davis, as she donned her now-famous pink running shoes, attempted to filibuster the bill to death. Davis, branded a fearsome crusader for women’s rights, embraced the national spotlight and admitted that she is eyeing Governor Rick Perry’s job.
Hearing or reading the phrase “abortion bill” in snippets of news coverage, we revert to form. Liberals recoil. Conservatives cheer. All without most people reading the actual text of the bill. Wendy Davis claims to be standing up for Texas women. Liberals nationwide claim to be “standing with Wendy.” Davis is suddenly a feminist hero. She’s pro-woman because, you know, she opposes that bill that, you know . . . um . . . abortion.
This tired script fails because there’s nothing especially “pro-woman” about opposing the legislation at issue . . . .
The bill’s most notable provisions are not, properly construed, anti-woman. First, the bill limits abortions past 20 weeks to extraordinary cases such as those imperiling the life of the mother. Only the tiniest minority of abortions currently performed occur this late in gestation. The second provision requires that abortion clinics meet the Health and Safety Code standards for ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). Davis and her supporters railed against this latter provision because Planned Parenthood suggested that 37 of 42 active Texas abortion clinics would have to shut their doors for failure to meet these minimal safety standards.
ASCs are medical facilities licensed to perform minor outpatient diagnostic and surgical procedures. Falling between ordinary doctors’ offices and full-fledged hospitals, ASCs are where patients frequently get colonoscopies and endoscopies, cosmetic procedures, bunionectomies, cataract removal and LASIK surgery, etc. By definition, ASCs serve patients who walk away from their procedures the same day, assuming all goes right. If anything goes wrong, ASCs have adequate facilities, equipment, and staff to help until a patient can be transported to a hospital.
Wendy Davis opposed a bill that gives women seeking abortions the same level of safety as women seeking LASIK on a Friday afternoon. Should I have feel empowered as a Texas woman that I can currently get a D&E for an unplanned pregnancy at a place with lower standards than where I could get a endoscopy for an acid reflux diagnosis? What is so “pro-woman” about lower health and safety standards for abortions?
In May of this year, a jury convicted Kermit Gosnell of multiple counts of first-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter, all related to abortions he performed in his dilapidated West Philadelphia clinic. At the time, abortion rights supporters insisted that we shouldn’t let those horrors turn us off of abortion entirely. No, we should simply note that Gosnell’s clinic is what happens when we don’t properly oversee the quality of care abortion providers give patients. Abortion is women’s health care, they insisted, and it is misogynistic Republican troglodytes who would like to relegate abortion to chop shops like Gosnell’s.
Yet, when Texas wants to treat abortion like other outpatient healthcare services, self-styled “pro-woman” politicians resist. When abortion rights advocates like Wendy Davis say they want to keep abortion safe, legal, and rare, they are only telling the truth about one of these. Was Wendy Davis committing the political equivalent of flopping last week? Is she not especially concerned with making abortion safer? Did she actually read the bill before seizing on a PR opportunity?
If Wendy Davis and her supporters disagree with this legislation, fine. I think she’s both immoral and irrational to do so, but neither morality nor rationality is a job requirement for Texas state senators. (Arguably, they aren’t for conservative ATL columnists either. So, maybe we’re square.)
But to frame Wendy Davis’s antics as “pro-woman”? No. That rhetoric does not belong here. I don’t routinely refer to abortion rights supporters as “pro-death” or “anti-children.” I resist that temptation not because I don’t think what they advocate amounts to the killing of unborn kids. I do it because language like that often muddles the debate in unhelpful ways. The abortion debate is more complex than simply pitting women against children, and I aim to respect that complexity. It is, however, flatly disingenuous to suggest that women are best served by promoting cheaper, easier, less-safe, later-term abortions. Being pro-abortion does not automatically make you “pro-woman.”
Abortion is a vestige of the truly misogynist past. In that past, single mothers were pariahs. Men were unaccountable for the children they created, if they preferred not to acknowledge inconvenient paternity. Adoption was a rare, secretive occurrence. Abortion was a quick and quiet remedy for society’s unwillingness to fully support women.
Fortunately, society has evolved in some ways. But we still owe it to women, as well as their unborn daughters and sons, to improve resources further.
A genuinely pro-woman agenda is possible, though it’s not coming from liberal abortion supporters like Wendy Davis. For example, here are three ways policymakers could advance the interests of unexpectedly-pregnant women:
Reduce child support delinquency. Efforts should encompass both stricter enforcement and programs to aid non-custodial parents (often fathers) in gaining the sort of employment that will allow them to pay for their kids and not go broke themselves. Give women greater confidence that, if they choose to raise their children themselves, they won’t have to do it without financial support from their children’s fathers.
Create programs to help pregnant women and single mothers further their education and professional development. This too can take many forms: grants to help pay tuition expenses, greater availability of on-campus child care, etc. Don’t make women choose between long-term financial independence and raising their children.
Better educate women about modern adoption so that women know their options and how to pursue them. Many women might be surprised at how many resources modern adoption can provide — financial support for the mother before and sometimes even after birth, different levels of ongoing contact with the child, the opportunity to select the adoptive parents, etc.
Programs like these offer meaningful choices to women who face unplanned pregnancies, choices about whether and how to parent their children, without destroying either their own lives or the lives of the girls and boys growing inside them. That is female empowerment. A whole lot more empowering than letting a woman terminate her pregnancy in a facility that wouldn’t even be allowed to give her a colonoscopy.
Wendy Davis, herself once a teenaged single mother, could be a powerful champion for genuinely pro-woman programs like these. Instead, she chooses to fight against limits on late-term abortions and raising health and safety standards for abortion facilities. Not only did her attempted filibuster amount to nothing but hours of fruitless talking, but she chose to speak out against measures that do not harm Texas women as she claimed. What a waste of a woman’s voice.
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. She has clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and worked as a researcher for multiple projects on the intersection of cognitive science and law, including Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at [email protected]