Wendy Davis’ abortion law filibuster may be a ‘Texas Spring’

State Sen. Wendy Davis dons a back support belt given to her by colleagues during her seventh hour of filibustering during the final day of the legislative special session, as the Texas Senate considers an abortion bill in Austin.
(Louis DeLuca / MCT)

Abortion rights supporters may as well put away those champagne glasses.

Jubilation probably came a bit prematurely for those celebrating the demise of the Texas measure that would turn back the clock on reproductive rights.

While many thought that Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ bold filibuster killed the bill outlawing abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, it merely served to postpone what many think is inevitable: the passage of yet another state measure restricting abortion and creating an insurmountable regulatory obstacle for all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics, by requiring them to offer the same level of care as ambulatory surgery centers.

Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas ACLU and a fierce opponent of the proposed Texas measure, SB 5, told me on Wednesday that, barring a miracle, she expects the Legislature will pass the bill at some point in the special session that Republican Gov. Rick Perry called for Wednesday, the day after Davis’ dramatic 11-hour filibuster. The special session, which will deal with the abortion bill as well as bills dealing with transportation and juvenile justice, is to convene July 1.


“I am the eternal optimist,” said Burke. “There may be something we haven’t though of to stop it but absent that, yeah, I think it will pass.”

A special session for the part-time Texas Legislature (it only meets for 140 days every other year) can last as long as 30 days, Burke said, and Texas rules allow one filibuster per bill, per session. That would present an impossible challenge for Davis if she’s contemplating another talkathon. “It’s not like she can talk for 30 days straight,” Burke said.

Even if the restrictive measure passes, it will be tied up in litigation, as many legal experts believe that bills trying to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation conflict with the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that states may not restrict a woman’s right to end a pregnancy before viability, or when the fetus can live outside the womb.

(Three years ago, no states had 20-week bans. Today, 12 states have passed such bills, as has the U.S. House of Representatives. At 20 weeks, abortion opponents contend, a fetus is able to feel pain. According to a 2005 multidisciplinary review of evidence in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” or 24 weeks. Only 1.4% of abortions are performed after 21 weeks.)

The silver lining for advocates of abortion rights, said Burke, is that Davis’ filibuster seems to have awakened a sense of outrage in a group that has often seemed complacent as states have steadily chipped away at reproductive choice, requiring ultrasounds, waiting periods, parental consent and other measures designed ultimately to make abortions too difficult to obtain.

Without a doubt, social media have played a part in that awakening.

On Tuesday, it helped ratchet up the intensity in the Texas Legislature. On Twitter, Davis supporters commented with the hashtag #StandWithWendy. A live stream allowed some 200,000 viewers to tune into the final dramatic moments of Davis’ filibuster as about 400 protesters in the visitors’ balcony chanted so loudly that legislators were unable to act on the bill before the session’s midnight deadline.

“I think it was the Texas Spring,” said Burke, alluding to the popular uprisings that swept the Arab world starting in 2010. “I think the ground shifted in Texas last night.”


“But it’s not just about abortion,” she added. “In Texas, this right-wing extremism has dominated our politics, and finally those in the middle, and those who are left-leaning, have found their voice. They really finally realized there were more of them than they thought there were.”

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