If you hadn’t heard of Texas state Senator Wendy Davis before Tuesday, you wouldn’t be alone. But after she shined a spotlight on the fight over abortion rights in Texas late Tuesday night by filibustering for 11 hours to defeat SB5, a bill that would’ve shuttered nearly all abortion clinics in the state, she’s become an overnight national hero, or villain, depending on who you ask.
It was a night of surreal political theater on both sides, but in a heartbreaking moment for pro-choice activists, Davis’ 11-hour filibuster came to an end roughly three hours before the midnight deadline to pass the bill after she was charged with violating filibuster rules by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst. Protesters responded by erupting into chants of “Shame! Shame,” delaying proceedings until the final vote was recorded at 12:03 a.m., three minutes too late, finally sealing the bill’s fate.
While the drama from Tuesday night was no doubt the climax of tension that has been building for many weeks, the showdown actually began almost a month ago when Texas Governor Rick Perry called the state legislature back from recess for a special legislative session to address a host of red-meat issues for conservatives. The most prominent of these was a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, required new surgical center standards for all clinics, and required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital no more than 30 miles away from their clinic, meaning hospitals who choose not to perform abortions for any reason could deny providers admitting privileges and effectively shut down all clinics in their area in one fell swoop. Experts say that the cost to refit clinics according to the new standards would have shut all but five clinics in the state down permanently.
While on the surface it may seem that these restrictions are meant to protect women from unsafe medical procedures, these laws are often referred to as TRAP laws or “targeted regulation of abortion providers” and are specifically meant, as anti-choice activists will openly admit, to shut clinics down. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, for example, proudly tweeted a map of all the clinics that would’ve been forced to close their doors as a result of this legislation, not only reveling in the idea of denying the rights of millions of Texan women to make their own decisions about their health care, but flaunting legislation that has been ruled unconstitutional in at least two other states.
But lacking either the political capital or courage to openly push for this legislation during the regular legislative session, Governor Perry and his Republican colleagues in the state legislature instead took a number of what the Associated Press called “highly unusual and partisan” moves to sneak this legislation in the back door. That, despite the fact that more than 80% of Texans said they did not want their legislature considering abortion legislation during the special session. In fact, when more than 800 protesters arrived at the state capitol prepared to give testimony against the bill, a move they called “the people’s filibuster,” Republicans rushed the bill past normal procedural roadblocks and even cut off opposing testimony, which they said was getting “repetitive.”
If Texas Republicans are really so adamant about “protecting women and children” as they say, the question becomes why they cut off the testimony of the hundreds of women who came to explain the harmful effects the bill would have had on their lives. Or why all Democratic proposals to add exemptions for women who were victims of rape were rejected.
But more importantly, they either unknowingly or uncaringly fail to see the connection between access to abortion and women’s safety. In a post-Kermit Gosnell world, everyone agrees that women should be protected from unsafe procedures, but Kermit Gosnell didn’t do what he did because abortion was legal, he did what he did because safe abortion wasn’t accessible enough — preying on young women, mostly of color, who were too afraid to ask for parental consent, too poor to pay for procedures at safe clinics, or too far along in their pregnancy to be accepted by other providers. In their effort to “protect women,” the Texas state legislature was dangerously close to making it more likely that women would be denied safe, affordable abortion access and be forced into desperate situations very similar to those women who went to Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic. But instead of working to make abortion as safe as possible, in typical fashion Republicans used women as poster children for their anti-choice agenda, an agenda they used every trick in the book to sneak past the public.
And unfortunately, while Senator Davis, along with her allies and colleagues in the Senate, may have momentarily put a halt to the anti-choice crusade, Lt. Governor Dewhurst hinted that the governor may call another special session to re-consider the bill, something he has done before, saying, “It’s over. It’s been fun. But see you soon.”