Wendy Davis, in her bid to become Texas governor, has tried to move beyond the abortion debate, the very issue that helped
make her a progressive star and earned her the nickname “abortion Barbie” in conservative circles. So much so that Davis has
even been accused of flip-flopping on the 20-week abortion ban, which was the subject of part of her 2013 filibuster.
Davis supports abortion rights, but has said she is opposed to late-term abortions, except in the case of rape, incest and
when the life and health of the mother is at stake. Although she filibustered a bill containing abortion restrictions, including
a 20-week ban, she has also said that she could support such a prohibition, if deference is ultimately given to the woman
and her doctor.
Politically, this shift in focus away from the battle over abortion has been a necessity for Davis, running in the deep-red Lone Star state, which hasn’t had a Democratic
governor in nearly two decades. But her revelations that she terminated two pregnancies probably will change that dynamic,
putting the focus back on an issue that few Democratic women running in Southern states are openly campaigning on in 2014.
Davis, currently a state senator, now joins a short list of women candidates who have acknowledged having an abortion. Nevada
Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, a Democrat who is running for lieutenant governor, acknowledged in 2013 that when she was 16, she
had an abortion.
In her memoir, “Forgetting to be Afraid,” Davis writes of ending a pregnancy 17 years ago, when doctors revealed that her daughter, who she had named Tate, would live in a permanent vegetative state, if she survived. Davis, along with her then husband, Jeff, spent time with the baby, delivered by C-section after the doctor “quieted” its heart. The baby’s remains were taken away the following day, according to excerpts reported in The San Antonio Express.
“An indescribable blackness followed. It was a deep, dark despair and grief, a heavy wave that crushed me, that made me wonder if I would ever surface… And when I finally did come through it, I emerged a different person. Changed. Forever changed,” Davis wrote.
In an interview with Robin Roberts set to air on ABC on Monday morning, Davis talked more about her daughter, who doctors said would be blind and deaf.
“Our baby had a severe brain abnormality,” Davis said in the interview. “We knew that the most loving thing that we could do for our daughter was to say goodbye.”
The revelations come three months before election day in a race that has always been a long shot for Davis. Despite efforts to broaden the electorate to non-registered and infrequent midterm voters, particularly Latinos, the math just doesn’t easily add up for Davis — or any Texas Democrat, for that matter. That reality has been reflected in polls taken over the last several months that show Davis down by double digits to Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who also has a commanding lead in fundraising.
Davis has wrapped her candidacy in her personal story, a move that hit a huge snag at the beginning of the year, when more complicated details about her trailer-park-to- Harvard Law school story emerged. Davis lived in a trailer for only a short time, and later, her husband Jeff, a lawyer, helped pay for her college and law school education and raised her two daughters in Texas while she was away at Harvard. Since then she has focused on education, hiking the minimum wage and equal pay legislation, issues that her campaign thinks will resonate with a broad swath of voters, particularly blue-collar women.
Her backers don’t think the abortion revelations will harm her politically.
“We know that when people understand exactly why women make this decision, they’re incredibly sympathetic. It’s tough to tell someone they should share a story so personal, but clearly it’s a powerful reminder of what’s at stake if we take away the right to make that choice,” Jess McIntosh, communications director for EMILY’s List. “Wendy Davis has always been brave – it’s one of the reasons Texas women are so excited to have her as their champion.”
A June poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed that 57 percent of Texans believe that a pregnant woman should be able to get a legal abortion if “there is a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby.” The poll also shows Davis trailing Abbott among women by 10 points. Among suburban women the gap is 13 points.
In this cycle, at least for Democrats running in red states, there has been something of a quiet truce on abortion, one that Davis has in many ways disrupted. It isn’t that these Democrats have changed their positions, rather, by and large, competitive women candidates are simply not talking openly about abortion rights. Democratic candidates like Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) instead are talking about “women’s health,” which has become a benign catchall for access to abortion and contraception. And the Southern version of the “war on women,” has become much more about economic issues than abortion.
Outside conservative groups, like the Susan B. Anthony List, which aims to elect anti-abortion candidates, however, have kept the heat on Democrats, as have Republican candidates.
Melissa Conway of Texas Right to Life, said “life affirming options, such as perinatal hospice care,” should be championed more broadly.
“When a mother faces a traumatic medical diagnosis for her unborn child, so many emotions surface, including worry and confusion over how to properly care for the child through the remainder of pregnancy,” Conway said in a statement. “Texas Right to Life encourages a woman facing a difficult or unexpected diagnoses to carry her baby to term, to celebrate the precious baby’s Life, and–if needed—provide care and treatment for the child until he or she dies naturally.”
Davis’ revelations are unlikely to change the fundamental dynamics of the race–people who back her will continue to and those that don’t won’t change their minds either. But her revelations represent a notable break in how progressive women candidates have talked about abortion.
Conservative women candidates, like former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, have actively talked about their choice not to have abortions, pr0-choice Democratic women candidates have rarely talked about making a different decision.
But Davis, along with Flores, have now opened up the discussion for a more nuanced debate about an issue that remains politically charged.