On the Wendy Davis Filibuster

I have a very vivid memory of the morning after Ann Richards was elected Governor of Texas. I heard the announcement on the radio and immediately burst into tears. I was seven years old, and at the time, my mother was pregnant with my third and youngest sister, Emily. I had been told at church and at my Christian school that Ann Richards was pro-choice, and having heard scary stories about the one-child policy in China, I had arrived at the weird conclusion that Ann Richards was going to force my mother to abort my sister.  A couple of years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton about the evils of abortion and the urgent necessity of making it illegal under any and all circumstances. I enclosed a macabre poem about a graveyard of unborn babies and all of the amazing things they could have done with their lives.

As someone who promptly succumbed to the liberalizing influence of college, this is a part of my history that I’m frankly a little embarrassed about and that makes me uncomfortably ambivalent whenever the topic of abortion comes up in SJ circles. On the one hand, I ardently believe that abortion should be legal, safe, and accessible, and I am appalled by the intellectually dishonest rhetoric that comes out of the pro-life camp. And a big part of me would like to simply disavow my seven year old self as a product of a very conservative upbringing in a conservative community in which there was little room for nuance on this issue (among others). On the other hand, I have trouble with the lack of nuance that runs the other way. Certainly, in many ways, misogyny at the bottom of it all, but of course that’s not how most pro-lifers see it. For me and for many people I grew up with, it wasn’t about controlling women, it was about protecting babies.

Discussions of abortion in my conservative community didn’t always revolve around immorality and the destruction of the traditional home. It was also wrapped up in rather well-intentioned (though sometimes hypocritical) concerns about the specter of eugenics, about disability rights, about the ethical horrors of ridding society of the “unwanted.” Frank Schaeffer, in his memoir about growing up as a conservative evangelical crusader, describes his turn toward militant pro-life activism as inspired by the birth of his child and what he saw as a growing callousness and alarming violence of Western culture in the twentieth century.

In other words, if there is an empathy gap between pro-life and pro-choice, it’s an empathy gap produced by the fact that pro-choice people empathize with the woman and pro-life people empathize with the unborn child. And both believe that in doing so, they are righteous. At bottom, I think we tend to direct our empathy in the easiest direction, and it’s hard not to empathize with babies. In a misogynistic culture, it’s easy to find reasons not to empathize with women who don’t want to have babies. During my teenage years, I was anti-abortion because I simply could not imagine a set of circumstances that would lead me to get one, and therefore it was fairly easy to imagine that anyone who would was somehow monstrous. I could not think outside the boundaries of my own experience and the fairly simple moral boundaries that my privilege enabled.

In order to have my mind changed, I had to encounter the stories of women who had, for various reasons, not just wanted but urgently required abortions to understand that the decision to get one is one of massive emotional and medical complexity in which something, inevitably, is going to be lost. I don’t believe that women who get abortions walk away with irreparable physical and emotional scars, but I do think that it’s an enormously delicate decision and that the best possible conditions for making that decision exist when there is minimal interference from outside, when we trust women to make it without subjecting them to further (sometimes literally physical) trauma or throwing up paternalistic roadblocks.   

And it’s for this reason that I am profoundly inspired by what Wendy Davis did last night, because the complicated stories of women who need abortions have so little visibility in a debate that takes place in depressingly abstract terms. I believe that stories can help change minds, but in this case, there just simply aren’t enough of them out there. And given the polarization of this issue, it’s easy to understand why. The right wants to minimize cognitive dissonance by labeling women who seek abortions as selfish and evil, so who wants to lay out the agonizing emotional calculus of their decision for that kind of demonization? Likewise, I think it’s difficult to acknowledge that abortion is a nuanced issue because the right has done a fairly successful job of using that to argue that therefore women need to be protected from themselves.

Visibility is power, and women who feel passionately about this issue have to fight to be visible in a media culture that remains problematically uncomfortable about discussing it on more than a surface level. Wendy Davis—not a perfect politician by any means—did a pretty remarkable thing with the help of other by demanding that kind of visibility. I just hope the finer points of argument are appreciated along with the sweeping drama of the filibuster’s final moments.

So yeah. More of this, please.

(Note: I have disappeared into an archive in Boston and therefore have been out of touch with the news. When I went to bed, the filibuster drama hadn’t yet peaked, so when I saw this morning that Facebook and Tumblr had gone all Red Wedding overnight, it took me a while to catch up. This is also my excuse for why blogging will remain somewhat light over the next couple of weeks.) 

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