Why Wendy Davis’ Position On 20-Week Abortion Bans Doesn’t Make Any Sense

CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero

On Tuesday, Wendy Davis attempted to clarify her position on 20-week abortion bans, one of the policies included in a controversial package of abortion restrictions that passed last summer. The state senator’s dramatic filibuster against that omnibus bill catapulted her into the national spotlight and helped her garner enough support to run for governor. But this week, Davis said she would actually support a 20-week ban under certain conditions.

Davis told the Dallas Morning News that she wouldn’t be opposed to a later abortion ban that “adequately deferred” to women and their doctors, pointing out that abortions after 20 weeks are rare. Later abortions typically occur in cases when serious health issues emerge for either the fetus or the woman. “I would line up with most people in Texas who would prefer that that’s not something that happens outside of those two arenas,” Davis said.

Texas’ new 20-week ban does have exceptions for fetal abnormalities and life-threatening pregnancies, but Davis does not believe they go far enough. The gubernatorial candidate explained that the current law doesn’t “give enough deference between a woman and her doctor making this difficult decision,” and the reason she couldn’t support it is because it allows the Texas legislature to “get too deep in the weeds of how we would describe when that was appropriate.”

What Davis is saying about the nature of later abortions — the fact that they’re very rare, are typically necessary when serious health issues arise, and require consultation between women and their doctors — is all true. Those realities just aren’t compatible with a ban on the procedure.

From a policy position, Davis’ stance simply doesn’t make sense. If the goal is to “give enough deference” to women who are making complicated decisions about their reproductive health, and allow medical professionals to exercise their own judgment about their patients’ care without being hampered by the legislature, that’s directly undermined by the enactment of a ban. For proof, look no further than any abortion provider who practices in a state with abortion restrictions on the books. Every attempt to separate abortion from the rest of medical care, and use political language to describe the circumstances under which it may be performed, changes the way that doctors would have otherwise chosen to conduct their work. Even attempting to include exceptions for some women doesn’t actually work in practice.

Furthermore, since abortions after 20 weeks make up just 1.5 percent of abortion procedures nationwide, it’s worth questioning whether any type of restriction in this area is actually necessary. What kind of impact is this law supposed to have?

If there aren’t very many later procedures being performed in the first place, and if Davis acknowledges that there are varied reasons why a woman and her doctor may decide that it’s the right decision, what’s left? Who needs to be banned from pursuing this medical option? The women who casually decide to have a later abortion on a whim? The women who think having a very expensive, multiple-day procedure just seems like fun? Many women who need later abortion care end up crossing state lines to seek out one of the handful of doctors in the entire country who risk their lives to perform the procedure. There aren’t any people in the equation who take this decision lightly.

Politically, however, Davis’ stance is all too understandable. The anti-choice community has turned 20-week bans into such a contentious political issue specifically because it’s easier to rally support for that type of abortion restriction. On the surface, 20 weeks seems like a reasonable compromise, and later abortions seem horrific. Conservatives have furthered that narrative by pointing to the unsanitary tactics employed by illegal abortion doctor Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who landed in jail for preying on low-income women in Philadelphia, and suggesting that’s analogous to what happens in legal clinics. Some abortion opponents have even suggested that Davis “stands with Gosnell.” It’s no wonder she wants to distance herself from that.

Abortion opponents are winning the messaging wars in this area. They’ve successfully construed 20-week bans as moderate, and they’ve forced politicians like Davis into a corner, attempting to have it both ways — reaffirming women’s right to bodily autonomy and doctors’ right to practice without interference, while simultaneously making the case that abortions should be regulated by the state.

However, Americans do oppose 20-week abortion bans when they’re given more context about the issue. When voters understand more about the complicated personal circumstances in which a woman may be seeking the procedure, they’re more likely to agree she shouldn’t be barred from that type of medical care. And this past fall, when a 20-week ban was put up for popular vote in Albuquerque, voters resoundingly rejected it, largely because of the groundswell of grassroots activism that effectively articulated a call to reproductive justice. But Davis — who, of course, is running in deeply red Texas — is struggling to master that complex framing.