Banning abortion at 20 weeks is bad policy. The bans — which are being passed in many states across the country in blatant violation of Roe v. Wade — are justified on “science” this isn’t science at all, but a lie manufactured by the religious right, the claim that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks. It’s an attempt to loosen up the hard-and-fast viability test that the Supreme Court laid out in 1973 for outright bans. So why does Wendy Davis, pro-choice hero who famously stood up against an omnibus bill in Texas that includes, amongst a bunch of attacks on clinics that provide first trimester abortions, support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks?
The short answer is that it’s the only realistic political move available to her if she wants an actual shot at becoming governor of Texas. While most Americans are pro-choice, later term abortions are politically unpopular. Because of this, Davis’s opponents have gone to great lengths to paint Davis as an abortion extremist who opposes all restrictions on later abortion. If you followed the right wing press, you would think the bill Davis filibustered was only a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.
Ed Morrissey of Hot Air claimed that Davis’s quote about abortion rights being “sacred ground” claimed she was speaking only of “late term abortion rights.” Davis’s opponent Greg Abbott claims that Davis wants “late-term abortion on demand.” Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post characterized Davis’s filibuster as being aimed solely and exclusively at the 20-week ban, and didn’t seem to understand at all that the bill was mostly an attack on first trimester abortion. Kirsten Powers jumped in the game, tossing the name “Kermit Gosnell” (who was convicted because of abortions after 24 weeks) around, also insinuating that the Texas battle was solely a matter of shutting down the very rare (around 1 percent) number of abortions that happen after 20 weeks.
It’s all a lie. Davis filibustered the Texas abortion bill mostly because she understood, as did her supporters, that the bill was about destroying access to first trimester abortion. Most of the provisions in the bill are there to shut down the clinics that are only equipped to provide first trimester abortion, by forcing these simply appointed clinics to obtain medically unnecessary hospital admitting privileges, to rebuild to meet ambulatory surgical standards (a standard the few clinics that do later abortions are much more likely to meet), and to put patients who want medication abortions, which are done in the first 9 weeks, through a bunch of hoops in hopes that they are unable to get the time together to complete the abortion. The bill — and therefore the filibuster — was mostly about first trimester abortion.
Davis has been clear that her interest was mainly in protecting first trimester abortion access this entire time. Politfact published an article in October explaining that it is simply a full-blown lie that Davis stood up for unfettered late term abortion access, pointing out that Davis has repeatedly stated her support the status quo of supporting Roe, which allows for increasing restrictions in the second and third trimester, as long as there are broad exceptions for women’s health care. If you read the text of her filibuster, she is very clear in it that her main concern with the 20-week ban is that it doesn’t have broad enough exceptions for women’s health and for fetal abnormalities. But the lie continued, so it’s no big surprise that Davis contacted the Dallas Morning News to explain, in clear terms, that she would support a 20-week ban if it had the broad exceptions for health, of the sort that the Supreme Court envisioned when the justices ruled on Roe.
Conservatives get a lot of mileage out of the idea of late term abortion by exploiting the public’s poor understanding of the issue. There’s a widespread stereotype, goosed by the conservative media, that women get abortions after 20 weeks because they are too stupid and lazy to bother to get them any earlier. In reality, abortions after 20 weeks are only about 1 percent of abortions, and are typically done that late because of pregnancy complications or fetal abnormalities that aren’t evident earlier in the pregnancy. Most of the rest are because women had poor access to abortion and it simply took 20 weeks to get the travel time and money together to get an abortion. Polls show that support for legal later abortion rises significantly when there are exceptions for the life circumstances that lead to nearly all of these abortions.
“Wendy’s words could have been chosen more carefully, but her positions are solid and women and families in Texas will be vastly better off under her as governor than under Greg Abbott,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL told me over email.
In an ideal world, Wendy Davis could sit the voters down and explain to them that what they want, which is that most women have abortions after 20 weeks for reasons they’d support, so passing any kind of ban is just a waste of time. The political reality is that level of in-depth education is impossible to achieve in a world where everything is run on soundbites and political posturing.
Under the circumstances, the only available political option is to do what Davis did: Support a theoretical 20-week ban so that your opponents can’t paint you as some kind of extremist while demanding that such a ban have broad exceptions in it so that it doesn’t present a substantial obstacle to women’s medical care. It’s not like the Texas legislature would ever put a reasonable 20 week abortion ban on her desk if she were governor anyway, so it’s a position she can take without any serious concern that she’d have to parse exactly how broad those exceptions would have to be.
Considering that the conservative media is already trying to paint this as a “flip-flop,” it appears her political strategy is working. In fact, from one angle, it seems Davis tricked the conservative press into doing the hard work of alerting voters that she has mainstream, moderate views on late term abortion. Hopefully now Davis can build on this small victory and redirect the conversation where it belongs, to the broad-based attacks on abortion rights in Texas that are about ending all legal access to abortion, especially the early term abortions that constitute 89 percent of all abortions.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villian who can be followed @amandamarcotte.