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Wendy Davis and why it matters that female politicians are talking about their abortions

Wendy Davis's filibuster in Texas elevated the issue of abortion to the national stage. (Eric Gay/AP)
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As Texas debates the implementation of some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, for at least three female lawmakers and candidates in that state, the debate has become intensely personal.

The most high-profile of the three, of course, is gubernatorial hopeful and state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), who revealed recently in her memoir that she had medical procedures to end two pregnancies.

“Our baby had a severe brain abnormality,” Davis said in a television interview. “We knew that the most loving thing that we could do for our daughter was to say goodbye.”

Davis, now trailing badly in her campaign, made her name on abortion politics, shooting to national prominence in 2013 on the strength of a 13-hour filibuster of the restrictive abortion laws.

Her careful abortion admission puts her and her fellow Texans in rare political company and represents a notable break from how abortion has typically been discussed by female politicians. But as with everything — and particularly abortion — there is a stark partisan divide.

Molly White, a conservative antiabortion activist now running unopposed for a Texas House seat, has also disclosed two abortions. But in contrast to Davis, she has argued that women like her suffer from psychological trauma and are prone to substance abuse. She has implied that only women who have had abortions can understand those drawbacks.

That prompted another abortion disclosure from Dawnna Dukes, a Democratic Texas state representative who was sitting on a panel on women's health issues with White recently and fought back against White's claims.

"To the world, I had an abortion,” Dukes said, revealing something she hadn't even told her parents.

Along with the three Texan women, at least two others — Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores (a Democrat running in a high-profile lieutenant governor's race in Nevada) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) — have also talked about having abortions. Collectively, what has emerged is something of a template, if not a trend, for how women in public office or seeking public office talk about their abortions.

First, some context. One in three women will have an abortion by the time they are 45. By our count, five female politicians have said they are among those millions. Davis has said that her revelations are not political, but rather personal details that could help other women and their families in similar circumstances. And her abortions are within the realm of what some have called  "good abortions" — largely non-controversial abortions that a wide swath of the public agrees should be safe and legal. There is little political downside or social stigma involved.

White is a departure from what we've typically seen from GOP women, who have in some cases made their choice not to have an abortion a political issue. Sarah Palin, most notably, has said she considered having an abortion when she found out that her son, Trig, would have Down syndrome. Palin also said she was proud of her daughter Bristol's decision to have her baby when she was pregnant as an unwed teenager. White's abortion narrative is more along the lines of a conversion; she believed one thing, and now believes something else. She is framing herself as a witness bearing a hard-earned truth.

Dukes's abortion revelation, meanwhile, highlights the stigma that comes with such a disclosure. She said in a Facebook post that she didn't have any psychological fallout from the procedure, and also said she had not "chosen to be promiscuous in my life relationship decisions."

"My reason for making this decision was private and will remain private — end of story," she wrote. "Folks have about as much right to know why as they have a right to know when/why you have a pap smear, rectal exam or root-canal — none what-so-ever."