ABORTION

The sudden sainthood of Wendy Davis

 
 
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis speaks at an abortion-rights rally attended by thousands on Monday on the south lawn of the State Capitol in Austin.
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis speaks at an abortion-rights rally attended by thousands on Monday on the south lawn of the State Capitol in Austin.
JAY JANNER / MCT

kathleenparker@washpost.com

I like Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis. I admire her intelligence, chutzpah, tenacity and, to be perfectly honest, her enviable continence.

But her elevation to national heroine, essentially owing to her ability to speak for 11 hours straight without a break while wearing (how many times did we hear or read it?) “rouge-red sneakers,” is absurd.

No matter what one’s politics, one can’t help noticing the strangeness of this latest phenomenon — fame by filibuster — or the remarkable acclamation bestowed on Davis for her passionate defense of a woman’s right to destroy an unborn child (or fetus, if you prefer) up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

One may wish to leave unfettered a woman’s right to do anything to herself, even if it means destroying her own offspring, but shouldn’t one be at least somewhat discomfited?

Instead, we celebrate.

In the days after Davis’ now-famous filibuster to block a Texas bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, as well as imposed stricter safety standards and doctor qualifications, the flaxen-haired damsel (if only to be consistent with media coverage thus far) has been on a magic carpet ride through the green rooms of America’s television talk shows.

Almost without exception, Davis has been regaled as a heroine of the war on women, a new gladiator in the pantheon of feminist warriors. As such, she faced such probing questions as “How are you even awake today?” and “What was it like standing for that long?” Like wowser-zowser, Wonder Woman, “Will you filibuster again?”

When MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked a substantive question — whether Davis thinks 20 weeks is an unreasonable limit on abortion — she replied in part that some women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 20 weeks. Really? Even if true, though surely rare, this observation is utterly irrelevant.

We have indeed come a long way from Roe v. Wade. In the early days of legal abortion, nearly everyone insisted that the procedure wasn’t intended as birth control. Millions of abortions later, original intent is laughable.

Even Bill Clinton’s call for abortion to be safe, legal and rare has a fairy-tale quality by today’s standards. Such that when legislators seek to place limits on abortion, based at least in part on technology that now allows us to see fetuses as more than a clump of cells, we are appalled.

No adult needs a primer on the politics of abortion. Part of what makes this issue so difficult is that both sides are, in principle, correct. Anti-abortion folks see it as a human-rights issue. Given that human life is a continuum that begins at conception, there can be no compromise.

Pro-abortion-rights folks see any limitation on abortion as an infringement on a woman’s right to control her own body. In their view, the baby isn’t a baby with human rights until it leaves the mother’s body, thereby becoming autonomous if lacking in self-sufficiency.

No wonder we can’t untwist this pretzel.

Ultimately, the question comes down to which awful option we can live with. Although a majority of Americans (61 percent) generally favor legal abortion in the first trimester, they become much more squeamish in the second (27 percent) and third (14 percent).

In other words, we seem to be relatively comfortable terminating a pregnancy before the fetus looks much like a baby. At 20 weeks, the halfway point, the fetus looks very much like a baby.

The abortion conundrum is further complicated by the dishonesty of our terminology. Simplistic phrases such as “pro-life” and “pro-choice” distort the complexity of how most people feel. It is also deceptive to refer to abortion as only a “women’s health issue” or to people who push for abortion limits as waging a “war on women.”

Perhaps the silliness and vagueness of our language have led to silliness and vagueness in our understanding and behavior. Who wants to talk about the meaning and purpose of life when you can talk about rouge-red shoes?!

But when the question of whether we should destroy human life at any stage is reduced to theater, leaving many journalists gushing like breathless red-carpet commentators, we have lost more than a sense of decorum.

One may agree with Davis’ principled stand on the Texas bill, which, she argued, tried to do too much. Even so, a little less glee from the bleachers would seem more appropriate to the moment.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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