Anita Perry upstages Wendy Davis — and her own husband

September 30, 2013


Wendy Davis has spent much of the last few months being the most visible woman in Texas politics. After news leaked days ago that she is likely to fulfill the wish of progressives everywhere by running for governor of the Lone Star state, it was destined to only increase her star power.

But something unexpected happened.

The week that her big announcement was supposed to take the political world by storm, Davis appears to have had her thunder stolen by another Texas political leading lady. During an interview last weekend at the Texas Tribune Festival, Texas First Lady Anita Perry replied to a question about abortion by saying she sees it “as a woman’s right.”

A woman saying she sees abortion as “a woman’s right” is not exactly news. But a woman married to one of the most anti-choice governors in one of the most anti-choice states in the country saying she sees abortion as “a woman’s right” is news.

In the last year, Texas, my home state, has emerged as ground zero in the national reproductive rights debate, which is no longer strictly a debate over abortion, but also access to contraception and comprehensive women’s healthcare. Although Planned Parenthood managed to co-exist peacefully in the state with previous Republican governors like George W. Bush, current Gov. Rick Perry has gone after the organization like it’s one of his hunting targets.

Since Perry took office Texas has enacted some of the most restrictive anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood measures in the country. It is now one of only 13 states in the nation that bans abortion after 20 weeks. But the abortion ban is not the most restrictive element of the new laws. The new statutes also require all abortions to be conducted in surgical centers and for doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. These requirements, virtually impossible for most of the state’s 42 abortion clinics to meet, means the majority of them will be forced to close by the September 2014 deadline, including a number of Planned Parenthood clinics, some of which have already begun to shutter. The number of clinics had already dwindled thanks to Perry’s earlier efforts.

He had worked to exclude Planned Parenthood from funding available through the state’s Women’s Health Program for low-income women. As I previously noted on She the People, “Even though the federal Hyde Amendment prevents Medicaid funds from being used for abortions, Planned Parenthood’s role as an abortion provider was used as the rationale for denying access to funding for Texas affiliates providing preventative services for Medicaid recipients — services such as contraception and breast screenings, not abortion. In the years leading up to the Women’s Health Program showdown the state also cut funding for family planning. The fallout from these efforts has led to the shuttering of at least 50 clinics providing women’s health care, many in rural areas and low-income communities, with hundreds of thousands of women affected.”

For many who support a woman’s right to choose, Wendy Davis became a Texas heroine with her marathon filibuster that attempted to thwart the state’s new abortion restrictions. Although those restrictions eventually became law, Davis also became a political star. And now thanks to Anita Perry, Davis’s candidacy has just become a lot less hype and a lot more viable.

Republicans have practically dared Davis to run, portraying her as nothing more than a darling of the national liberal elite, out of touch with the values of residents of her state. But Anita Perry just reminded her husband and other Republicans that that’s not true, and that Wendy Davis is more representative of Texas values than the current governor. A June 2013 poll found that a majority of Texans, 52%, across party lines support some form of abortion rights. While 51% of Texans opposed the new abortion restrictions, even more significant the poll found, “Nearly three quarters of voters (74 percent) in the state say personal, private medical decisions about whether to have an abortion should be made by a woman, her family, and her doctor, not by politicians; just 19 percent of voters think government has a right and an obligation to pass restrictions on abortion. Support for a woman’s ability to make decisions on abortion for herself is both broad and deep, including among Independents (76 percent) and Republicans (61 percent).”

This means that an overwhelming majority of Texas voters agree with Anita Perry that abortion is ultimately “a woman’s right.” But one notable Texan does not: her husband.

Anita Perry is not the first high-powered Texas political wife to break ranks with her hubby over reproductive rights. Shortly after her husband was elected to the presidency, Laura Bush stirred controversy by saying she did not believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. In 1992 her mother-in-law, then-first lady Barbara Bush, jolted the presidential campaign by saying in multiple interviews that abortion was “a personal choice” and that she believed discussions of such matters didn’t belong in a presidential platform. So do the voices of spouses ultimately wield any significant policy weight? It is worth noting that the administrations of Bush I and Bush II were not marked by the significant assaults on reproductive rights that have become the norm in recent years. (President George W. Bush did sign the law against late-term abortion, a procedure that is opposed even by many in the pro-choice community.)

While it is easy to argue that based on recent events Mrs. Perry has had little influence on her husband’s women’s health policy, that would not be true. One of the governor’s most controversial policies, at least among conservatives, was signing an executive order requiring HPV vaccines, which can protect girls from ever acquiring the virus that can result in cervical cancer. Though heralded by health advocates, the move would haunt Perry in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. An analysis by The New York Times found the governor’s office began moving on the issue following a speech by Mrs. Perry, a registered nurse, on the topic. Even more telling, perhaps sensing the potential political landmine, she advised her husband that she had spoken with a prominent Republican who said “she would help you with some conservative groups.”

In her Texas Tribune interview Anita Perry said she doesn’t personally agree with abortion, but said of others, “If they want to do that, that is their decision; they have to live with that decision.”

She also said she would not criticize Wendy Davis. The compassion and common sense demonstrated by Anita Perry was yet another reminder that often if you want to hear sensible talk about a women’s issue, sometimes it helps to ask a woman. (She also reminded me that my list of men married to women who would make better candidates than they are, just keeps growing.)

I have no doubt I’d learn more from a debate on women’s health between Anita Perry and Wendy Davis than from yet another debate on the subject in the House or Senate or among TV pundits dominated by men.

Keli Goff is a columnist for The Daily Beast and The Root. Follow her on Twitter @keligoff.
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