Does Wendy Davis’ Abortion Revelation Help the Overall Abortion Debate?

Texas state Senator Wendy Davis’ campaign to be the next governor has always seemed like a bit of a long shot in a state that has been viewed as one of the most conservative in the nation. Still, if there is any chance of getting a Democrat back in the governor’s mansion this election cycle, Davis, who rose to national fame in the summer of 2013 when she spent 13 hours filibustering a massive anti-abortion omnibus bill, provided some of the highest hopes.

It’s been no secret that her campaign has been disappointing to many progressives in the state, especially when it came to her near silence surrounding the issue of abortion, despite the significance reproductive rights played in bringing her massive attention from all across the country. While the campaign itself may have been trying to distance itself from the moment that left conservatives crassly dubbing her “Abortion Barbie,” for progressive Texans the debate was one that they had invested highly in both physically and emotionally, flooding the capital for weeks, standing with her in solidarity, returning even after a new special session was called and they knew the bill, which was reintroduced as HB 2, was inevitably going to pass.

Davis and her team are finally discussing abortion now, but not entirely in the way anyone expected her to. Instead, Davis has published a new memoir. In it, she discusses her own personal abortion stories, according to news sources. Davis, we learn, has had two abortions.

According to the reports, both of Davis’ abortions were of wanted pregnancies with medical issues, and both occurred after Davis had already given birth to her daughters. The first, an ectopic pregnancy that developed outside of the womb, was considered to be life threatening if the embryo was not aborted. The second was an abortion during the second trimester because the fetus’ brain didn’t develop properly. “Davis writes that during her second trimester she took a blood test that could determine chromosomal or neural defects, which doctors first told her didn’t warrant concern,” reports the Associated Press. “But a later exam revealed that the brain of the fetus had developed in complete separation on the right and left sides, Davis says. She sought opinions from multiple doctors, who told her the baby would be deaf, blind and in a permanent vegetative state if she survived delivery, she writes.”

As a campaign move, the revelation could do much to help Davis with voters who have been reluctant to support her because they have believed the GOP’s portrayal of her as an abortion extremist. While Davis herself had always been clear that she is actually in favor of later abortion bans as long as they have adequate exceptions for complex medical situations, Republicans hoping to score an Abbott win or in opposition to abortion under absolutely every condition have managed to convince a large number of voters that Davis is indeed some sort of all abortions, all the time proponent. In reality, it was the refusal to allow any exception for when a fetus has a poor medical prognosis or when a person has been impregnated by sexual assault that spurred much of her opposition.

With the revelation of her own past, Davis opposing the bill because of its lack of exceptions makes perfect sense. That’s especially true when considering the onslaught of Texas abortion opponents who have publicly stated that she should have given birth to that child with the brain anomaly regardless of its condition. “We do not favor or advise abortion in cases when the unborn child has disabilities, just as we cannot advocate taking the life of a newly born child who has severe disabilities,” Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said in a statement. Melissa Conway, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life, agreed, saying, “Regardless of how severe or hopeless a diagnosis may be, the dignity of life remains unaltered by disability and disappointment.”

It’s too soon to know how Davis’ personal story will change the rhetoric of the gubernatorial campaign, if it does at all. However, while it may impact that race for the better, as her campaign must believe, whether or not it benefits the entire debate around abortion nationally is an even bigger question. On the one hand, many reproductive rights supporters argue that it is always beneficial when a person talks about his or her own personal connection to abortion, making it clear that it is something that almost everyone has been impacted by and that a vast number of people have undergone, which decreases the stigma surrounding it. On the other, Davis’ story, like many of the “hard case” abortion stories we hear especially when a bill or ban is being debated, once more falls into the category of the special circumstances, reiterating this idea that there are abortions for good reasons or bad reasons and that Davis, because she terminated wanted pregnancies, had the type of abortions we can justify. It continues to categorize and highlight abortion of wanted pregnancies that went wrong as good, and wholly separate from abortion because a person does not want to remain pregnant or give birth.

Female candidates are beginning to feel more comfortable talking about their own abortion experiences as a part of their campaigns, especially when it impacts how they view a number of key policy issues like abortion, birth control, parental leave, sex education, wage issues and health care, and that is a positive trend. However, as these stories continue to come out, let’s hope that their impact continues to move the debate into discussion abortion accessibility in all circumstances, not just enforce the idea of good abortions reasons versus bad ones.