ABORTION DEBATE

Legislative chaos over abortion debate in Texas

 
 
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis' pink sneakers have become a symbol of her successful filibuster.
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis' pink sneakers have become a symbol of her successful filibuster.
AP

nytimes.com

There is an old saying that Texas is “heaven for men and dogs, but hell for women and oxen.” But the state’s history is chock-full of stories of female role models. Barbara Jordan. Ann Richards. In downtown Austin, there’s a statue of Angelina Eberly, heroine of the Texas Archives War of 1842, firing a cannon and looking about 7 feet tall.

I do not have nearly enough time to explain to you about the Archives War, although it’s an extremely interesting story. Right now we need to move on to state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster this week turned her into a national name brand.

“It was like a made-for-TV movie. I’ve been around the block, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood and the daughter of the former governor.

Texas is a state with one of the nation’s highest teenage motherhood rates, where a majority of women who give birth are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. So, naturally, its political leaders have declared war against the right of women to choose whether or not they want to be pregnant. Funding for family planning has been slashed. This month, Gov. Rick Perry tried to pass a new law that would have shut down almost all the abortion clinics in the state, under the guise of expanded health and safety requirements.

Huge crowds showed up to protest! This was pretty remarkable because Texas is not currently known as a place where people pay intense attention to what goes on in its state Capitol. (A recent study at the University of Texas at Austin found that it has “one of the nation’s lowest political and civic participation rates.”) Also, the conventional wisdom is that when things get politically rowdy, it’s because of a visitation from the right.

Yet there the protesters were, filling the Senate gallery and overflow rooms, squishing into the halls and the rotunda, flowing down the Capitol front steps and into the mall.

The bill arrived at the state Senate, its final stop, on the last day of the legislative session. Late in the morning, Davis got up to filibuster until midnight when the clock ran out.

Like Ann Richards, Davis is good on her feet, with a spectacular head of hair and a gift for funny speeches. But, on Tuesday, she was angry and ready for a fight. In the Texas Capitol, she said later in a phone interview, “there’s a complete disregard for women’s rights by those without uteruses.”

The Texas filibuster rules are suitable for a place that regards steer wrestling and bronco busting as the official state sport. We made a big fuss when Rand Paul stayed on his feet for 13 hours in the U.S. Senate to filibuster over drones. But that was a walk in the park compared with what Davis went through. Paul got help from his friends, who orated while he rested his voice. And U.S. senators can speak about anything when they filibuster. (Paul read from Alice in Wonderland.) Davis was supposed to stick to her subject.

The crowd was reasonably quiet until Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ruled that Davis had to sit down because she had gone off topic by referencing a state law requiring that women who want abortions must show up a day earlier for an ultrasound.

“That wouldn’t have happened to any other senator,” said Davis, who believes she was treated dismissively because she is a woman — or at least a woman filibustering on women’s issues.

The people in the gallery began to yell. Dewhurst, who complained about “an unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics,” could not get control of the room before time ran out. Texas is now engaged in a debate over whether it is worse to yell in the state Senate or declare a senator out of order for discussing the state abortion laws during a debate on abortion.

Meanwhile, pictures of the pink sneakers worn by Wendy Davis during her filibuster have resurfaced as posters.

The anti-abortion bill will be back. Vowing not to give way to “the breakdown of decorum and decency,” Perry called a special emergency session for July 1 to take it up again.

The protesters will undoubtedly be back, too. “They’ve tasted victory — what it means to organize and win,” predicted Cecile Richards.

And Texans are wondering if this could be a new era for a state that really hasn’t been in the national eye for ages — unless you count the Rick Perry “oops” moment.

“Politics has been so dormant in Texas,” said Evan Smith, the editor of The Texas Tribune, whose livecast of Davis’ filibuster was viewed by 182,000 people. “The point is, the world is watching now.”

A few years back, Davis told me about an incident during a debate when she had asked a veteran Republican a question about a pending bill. Dodging her query, he said: “I have trouble hearing women’s voices.”

I guess they can hear her now.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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