Wendy Davis Should Talk About Abortion

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 5 2014 10:52 AM

Wendy Davis Should Talk About Abortion

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No shrinking violet.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Waking up, suing the government and going home is not much of a governing principle. Yet it has gotten Greg Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, pretty far. That’s what he has spent his time doing as Texas Attorney General, he quipped. He leads Democratic candidate Wendy Davis by double digits in polls. Only the bluest dye-in-the-wool Democrat thinks Davis still has a shot.

Up until now, Davis has avoided talking about abortion, the issue that put her in the national spotlight last June, when she stood for 11 hours to filibuster HB 2, an anti-abortion bill. (She was always a “reluctant participant” in the debate, she has said). That is understandable: It is a contentious subject likely to alienate many voters. But her pitches about equal pay and education have not made much of an impression, and her campaign has lacked an overriding message.

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Davis should stop shying away and bring the abortion discussion to the fore. Last week, a U.S. judge struck down part of the restrictive abortion bill that brought her to fame. The mandate that abortion clinics be refit at ambulatory surgical centers would “undeniably reduce meaningful access to abortion care for women throughout Texas,” the court concluded, and in conjunction with requiring hospital admitting privileges for abortion practitioners, posed “constitutionally impermissible” burdens on women seeking service. Abbott subsequently filed an emergency appeal. (An answer is expected Friday).

In truth, though, Abbott has much to lose were abortion to become a significant issue in the race. Despite what would seem like indisputable pro-life credentials, he has been careful not to appear to be as much of a hardliner on the issue as some of his backers wish he was. When asked whether he is opposed to abortion in all cases, without exception for rape, incest, or if it threatens the mother’s life, he has painfully dodged the question again and again. (Unlike Dan Patrick, the Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate, who wants to ban abortion outright, without exception). As of this writing, Abbott’s campaign has not returned a request to clarify his position on the matter.

A ban on abortion would please Abbott’s staunchest pro-life backers, such as Texas Right to Life, a group that claims to be the largest pro-life organization in the state. But outright prohibition on abortion is unpopular with Texans in general: Only 16 percent of Texans favor a ban, according to the Texas Politics Projection (TPP) at the University of Texas at Austin. Though most Texans want to limit late term abortions (which Davis has said she agrees with), almost 80 percent say it should be legal in at least some circumstances. Support for abortion access is strong among suburban women , even though many are Republicans.

Having courted pro-life groups early on meant Abbott “had to have a substantive response to the ruling last week,” observes Jim Henson of the TPP. For the same reason, he is loath to say that abortion should sometimes be permissible. An admission he backs a ban in all cases would risk losing women voters—a demographic Gov. Rick Perry won nearly 2-to-1 in 2010. Losing those votes wouldn’t cost him the governor’s mansion, but it would make any Republican think twice about taking a draconian stance on abortion and offer an opening for Texas Democrats to build on. 

Update: Abbot's appeal was rejected on September 3rd, 2014.

Boer Deng writes for Nature. Follow her on Twitter.