Abortion Rights Under Fire: Why Wendy Davis' Filibuster Matters

A brave state legislator and an army of feminist supporters have stopped Texas' extreme anti-choice law for now, but the fight is just beginning

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis
Barbara L. Salisbury/MCT via Getty Images
Texas State Senator Wendy Davis
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On Monday, the Texas State House voted overwhelmingly to pass a draconian proposal that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, as well as adding stringent new restrictions on how clinics get licensed. The intent was clear: Supporters of the bill, known as SB 5, openly acknowledged that the law would have closed 37 of the state's 42 clinics, leaving hundreds of thousands of women in Texas and neighboring states like Oklahoma with no way to access abortion care. With a conservative majority in the State Senate and the support of Governor Rick Perry, the measure seemed certain to become law.

But on Tuesday, Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, backed by an army of feminist supporters, launched an epic 13-hour filibuster and shut the whole thing down.

Davis began her filibuster just after 11 A.M. yesterday, reading aloud testimony from doctors and women who would be impacted by the restrictions. For the filibuster to work, Davis had to speak until midnight – the deadline for the end of a 30-day special session called by Gov. Perry to address left-over GOP priorities like closing nearly all the abortion clinics in the state and redistricting. This wasn't the kind of symbolic filibuster in name only seen in the U.S. Senate: Under Texas' parliamentary rules, Davis was required to speak continuously and only on the topic of the bill the entire time. She couldn't take breaks to eat, take a sip of water or go to the bathroom. She could not lean against anything for support. If Davis broke any of these rules, the filibuster would die and SB 5 would become law.

Just before the midnight deadline, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sustained a third and final challenge to Davis' filibuster – this one on the germaneness of discussing the 2011 law that forces Texas women to undergo invasive ultrasounds – and called for a vote. Hundreds of protesters who had gathered in the senate gallery erupted in outrage.

With the clock still running, Davis' colleagues stepped up. State Senator Leticia Van De Putte, who arrived at the Capitol in the afternoon after spending the morning at her father's funeral, challenged Republican leaders at the podium who did not recognize one of her attempts to speak: "At what point does a female senator need to raise her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?" Van De Putte's procedural mic drop prompted even louder, sustained cheering from the crowd; Republicans pounced on the chaos, trying to force through a vote.

Confusion ruled as police began streaming through the Capitol to arrest protesters and clear the crowd. The Texas Senate website released a statement announcing that SB5 had passed – even as the Texas Tribune's Becca Aaronson reported that an official Senate timestamp showed the final vote approving SB5 was taken at 12:02 A.M., two full minutes past the deadline. As the dust settled, evidence emerged that Republicans had resorted to changing the timestamp in an attempt to fake the bill's passage.

But with a gallery still packed with Democratic lawmakers and supporters – and upwards of 180,000 people around the country watching a livestream of events online – Republicans could sustain the fiction only so long. After three hours of continued protests, disputes and meetings inside Senate offices, state senators finally confirmed to the Texas Tribune the vote was invalid. The bill was dead – for now, at least. Early reports indicate that Texas Republicans plan to call another special session to try and force passage again.

SB 5 is the latest in a series of extreme copy-cat anti-abortion measures sweeping states nationwide. Led by right-wing activists in places like North Dakota, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Ohio and Kansas, these bills represent the next front in the abortion wars. Inspired in part by conservative successes in public-union busting in states including Wisconsin and Michigan, national organizations like Americans United for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List have armed themselves with model legislation and launched a crusade to regulate abortion out of existence, while simultaneously teeing up a direct legal challenge to the 40-year precedent of Roe v. Wade. One way or another, their goal is to end access to safe and legal abortion nationwide, but do so in a way that looks "homegrown."

It's a crusade with consequences. As it stands, 31 percent of women in Texas are uninsured. In 2008, 87 percent of U.S. counties had no abortion provider, with one-third of American women living in these counties, and the numbers are even worse in Texas. Those fortunate enough to be able to access abortion care there must first go through state-directed counseling designed to discourage them from having the procedure. This includes a mandatory ultrasound where the provider must show and describe the fetal image to the woman. She must then wait at least 24 hours before she can have the abortion. This is the landscape of abortion rights before conservatives pushed SB5.

The right wing is targeting states like Texas for a reason. Thanks to the 2010 Tea Party election and the redistricting that followed, state politics are more partisan and entrenched than ever before, with conservatives holding a distinct legislative advantage in these areas. And conventional wisdom has held that even if a state like Texas has some pro-choice activists, it lacks the kind of progressive infrastructure needed to take down a bill once the conservatives established their super-majority.

Davis proved last night that the conventional wisdom couldn't be more wrong. Raised by a single mom, and a single mom herself at age 19, Davis worked two jobs in community college, became the first in her family to earn a bachelors degree and eventually graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. She was elected to the state Senate in 2008, defeating a long-time Republican incumbent and sending initial signals that the political landscape in Texas was changing. Conservatives took notice. Davis, who represents a heavily minority district, was one of the legislators targeted by Texas Republicans through redistricting in 2011. Notably, those efforts failed thanks to a legal challenge under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act – the landmark civil rights law that the Supreme Court gutted just prior to the start of Davis' filibuster this week. 

Last year, Davis' offices were firebombed in an attack that many speculated was connected to her vigorous support of Planned Parenthood from Republican attempts to strip the health care provider of funding. Undeterred, Davis has doubled down in her defense of reproductive rights in the state. And she isn't going it alone. Thousands of activists from within the state organized opposition to SB5, supported by thousands more activists online. Ignoring calls by some to just let Texas and the health of its citizens go, they dug in – knowing that if conservatives succeeded in Texas, they'd likely succeed in places like Ohio

Conservatives understand this point, too. Like California during the 1980s, Texas is turning blue thanks to women and people of color, and the right wing has no real plan or platform to capture those voters. Instead, they had planned to hold the state by force, as Tuesday night's events made clear. What they didn't plan on was Davis and her feminist army. And they're not going anywhere.