During a speech at the University of Texas in Brownsville on Wednesday, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis — best known for her 11-hour filibuster of an anti-abortion bill — said "I am pro-life." And then she qualified that with:
"I care about the life of every child: every child that goes to bed hungry, every child that goes to bed without a proper education, every child that goes to bed without being able to be a part of the Texas dream, every woman and man who worry about their children’s future and their ability to provide for that future. I care about life and I have a record of fighting for people above all else."
It's the biggest uproar over reproductive rights labels since Gov. Rick Perry's wife kind of implied she's pro-choice (she's not). The right called bull, and the left said she was taking back the term. And certainly Davis is not pro-life in the way conservative pro-lifers consider themselves to be. Since being elected to the Texas state Senate in 2008 after a decade in on the Fort Worth city council, Davis voted twice against a 2011 bill, now a law, that requires that doctors perform ultrasounds prior to abortions. She argued that the purpose of the legislation was "to traumatize women." But why can't Davis be pro-life and pro-choice?
Conservatives pegged her remarks as lies meant to trick Texan voters, particularly religious Democrats. The Weekly Standard said her comment was "a bid to confuse and/or deliberately mislead voters in her native Texas." Town Hall argued that Davis has been trying to distance herself from abortion since her filibuster (which isn't true), and "now she's trying to lie and say she's pro-life." The Washington Examiner also hinted that this was likely an attempt to secure votes:
"The problem is, in terms of electability ... just being popular in the Democratic Party isn't enough to win in Texas," St. Edwards University's Brian William Smith said of Davis after her filibuster, a comment that perhaps accounts for Davis' rebranding remarks yesterday.
Wendy Davis declaring “I am pro-life” is simply a lie. There is no other way to describe it. It is a calculated lie designed to fool Texans into believing that Wendy Davis is not as extreme as her record proves she is.
Basically, she's a lying liar who lied to get votes, assuming you think anyone who even kind of supports a woman's right to choose can't also care about children. Liberal blogs, meanwhile, have either mocked the conservative outrage and praised Davis for reclaiming the term. Left-leaning blog Peacock Panache said Davis comments had "for all intents and purposes redefined what it means to be pro-life," while National Memo recommended that "if Davis is intent on rebranding 'pro-life' to actually caring for children once they are born, she could point out that abortion rates are higher in places where the procedure is illegal." Arguing that Davis is changing the definition is a little closer to the truth, but it still assumes the abortion binary: pro-life/anti-choice/anti-abortion vs. pro-choice/anti-life/pro-abort.
A third interpretation is this: maybe Davis understands that, for a lot of Americans, abortion isn't a just a morality issue, or just a women's reproductive rights issue. It's both, and it's possible to be pro-life and pro-choice — it's possible to be morally conflicted about abortion due to your religious or personal beliefs but also understand that a woman's right to choose what happens to her body (and her right to access contraceptives) shouldn't be decided by all male panels in Washington. A 2011 study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that there's an overlap among "pro-choice" and "pro-life." According to the study:
Seven-in-ten Americans say the term “pro-choice” describes them somewhat or very well, and nearly two-thirds simultaneously say the term “pro-life” describes them somewhat or very well. This overlapping identity is present in virtually every demographic group.
More recently, a May 2013 Gallup poll found that while 20 percent of those polled believed abortion should never be legal and 26 percent polled said it should always be legal, 52 percent were in favor of abortions being legal under certain circumstances. So while 78 percent of those surveyed believe abortions should be legal sometimes or always, 45 percent identified as pro-choice and 48 percent identified as pro-life, meaning there were pro-lifers who believe abortion should be legal at least sometimes. Davis could be vote hunting, or trying to "re-claim" the pro-life label, but she might just be acknowledging that the abortion debate isn't black and white.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.