Between the trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell and the passage last week of a House bill banning abortion after 20 weeks, the abortion debate was already pretty intense. But Wendy Davis’ successful filibuster of a controversial Texas measure Tuesday has upended the political calculus on this issue yet again, electrifying abortion-rights activists and elevating what had been a state-level fight to a national battle.
In the past six months, abortion opponents have scored a string of victories, passing a total of 35 measures that would restrict abortion procedures in 17 different states. While plenty of those states are conservative, there are swing states as well: the list includes Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Utah, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.
While abortion opponents have spent the past week relishing their biggest win in a decade in the House, they have been taken aback by the dramatic filibuster Davis waged along with other Texans to block legislation that not only would have banned abortion after 20 weeks, but would have required clinics to make costly upgrades and have their doctors obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The theatrics surrounding the Texas fight — including women storming a state Senate hearing last week dressed in “Mad Men”-era garb, a citizens’ filibuster where nearly 800 people delayed the vote by tying up a House committee session for 10 hours; and a spotlight shining on the state capitol spelling out the phrase “End the War on Women“–have transformed a single bill into a national rallying cry.
Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Republican state legislator who had been among the leaders of the unsuccessful fight against North Dakota’s restrictive new abortion law, was on a vacation getaway with girlfriends when news of Davis’ filibuster came across her Facebook feed.
“I was impressed, particularly in Texas,” she said. Hawken recalled that when her own legislature was debating its antiabortion bill, “I gave one speech that lasted less than three minutes.”
She noted that that kind of filibuster—or even the cheering from the gallery– would probably not have been allowed under North Dakota’s legislative rules, and she predicted that state lawmakers around the country are likely to begin digging into the intricacies of parliamentary procedure in their own chambers.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Hawken said. “I’m hopeful that this is the start of something bigger.”
Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who flew to Texas Monday night and stayed through the filibuster, said in an interview “a fuse was lit in Texas last night.”
“I’ve been an organizer my entire life and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve certainly never seen anything like this in Texas,” said Richards, whose mother served as the state’s governor. “It felt like in Texas you weren’t alone anymore. And it was nice to win,”
That one win aside, Richards and her colleagues remain very much on the defensive.The Ohio state budget, which is awaiting Gov. John Kasich’s (R-Ohio) signature, has provisions that make it more difficult for family planning groups to get preventative health funds; require ultrasounds for anyone seeking an abortion and limit abortion providers’ ability to get transfer agreements with public hospitals. In Wisconsin, pending legislation would require any woman seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and require abortion providers to get hospital admitting privileges.
“I think the question is who’s the Wendy Davis of Ohio, who’s the Wendy Davis of Wisconsin, of North Carolina, and what can people do like they did in Texas to step forward and stay strong, and do heroic things with their colleagues,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
But Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of federal affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List, said Davis had undermined abortion-rights activists’ standing with the public by blocking a bill requiring tougher operating standards for abortion clinics.
“She may be a hero for some women, but I really believe she’s fighting the wrong fight when it comes to women’s health,” said Musgrave, whose group supports antiabortion candidates. Referring to Gosnell, she added, “This has been a year where the curtain has been pulled back, when people have taken another look at abortion.”
Musgrave, who noted that “the fight will go on” in other states, suggested that Davis’ filibuster as well as votes such as House passage of the 20-week abortion ban “will set the stage for elections in 2014,” and Laguens agrees with that assessment.
And in the aftermath of Davis’ filibuster, it’s an issue that just got a little more important in the minds of voters.
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.