Late on Friday, a bombshell dropped on the 2014 gubernatorial race. Advance copies of Wendy Davis’ autobiography, Forgetting To Be Afraid, made their way into the hands of journalists, and the book’s big revelation—that Davis had two abortions in the nineties for medical reasons—became a major part of the campaign.
Voters and pundits rushed to offer their opinions. Interestingly, few of her critics focused on the abortions themselves. Rather, they raised questions about her decision to disclose those experiences with the election looming: Was it inappropriate for Davis to use her personal story in the midst of a political campaign? Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak described it as “sickening” and “subhuman” on Twitter, a sentiment echoed—albeit in less stark language—by the press who reported on the reveal. During her appearance on Good Morning America, host Robin Roberts asks her, “Are you trying to pull at the heartstrings of the voters?”
It’s hard to argue that the timing of Davis’ reveal isn’t political, simply because she is a candidate in the final months of a political campaign. But the question of why that would be inappropriate is one worth parsing. Politicians use their personal stories, their triumphs and tragedies, all the time as they attempt to relate to voters and inform the electorate about who they are and what shaped them. A few days before the advance copies of Davis’s autobiography went out, her opponent Greg Abbott released a campaign ad called “Garage,” in which he highlights his own medical history in an attempt to connect with voters. In the ad, Abbott explains that, as he developed his strength after the accident that left him disabled, he would roll up an eight-story parking garage for hours a day. He explains that he’ll govern Texas with the same determination that led him to rebuild his strength when he became a wheelchair user. Abbott’s video was well received; the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, for example, described it as “powerful” and “terrific”. More generally, no one has criticized him for talking about his life story during the course of this campaign (although some critics have argued that it casts Abbott’s support for tort reform in an odd light).
Keeping that in mind, it’s interesting to see Davis facing questions—even from a friendly reporter like Roberts—about whether she crossed a line in revealing her abortions in the midst of a campaign. Davis’s gubernatorial candidacy has been associated with access to abortion since it began, given that her rise to political and cultural fame came as she successfully filibustered the omnibus abortion bill during last summer’s first special session. The bill was subsequently passed in the second special session, and is now law. Access to abortion remains a hot-button issue; the law has been challenged in court multiple times, and key provisions of it are currently suspended after a district court found them to be unconstitutional. The issue is relevant, then, and so are Davis’s views about it; and if her personal experiences informed her views, there is no political reason she should be expected to keep quiet about them. Similarly, there is probably no real political advantage from Davis’s decision to write about her abortions. Her views on the subject were already widely known.
On balance, Davis’s personal story informs voters where her passion for the issue came from. Aside from that, the only real reason to consider it is that it offers another example of the circumstances that may lead a woman to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Davis herself considers such examples important. During her filibuster she read aloud testimony from a number of Texas women who sought abortions for a variety of reasons. Some of those stories echoed the experiences that Davis describes in her book, where she writes of an ectopic pregnancy—one in which the egg implants outside of the womb, endangering the life and health of the mother—that she had in 1995, which necessitated an abortion; and of a second-trimester abortion after tests revealed that, had she carried to term, the baby would have been born with Dandy-Walker syndrome, a severe brain abnormality that led her doctors to determine that the pregancy was not viable.
When Davis told the stories of others on the floor of the Texas Senate, she did so as a representative of the countless Texans who’ve had or would have abortions for a number of reasons. Representing Texans is her job as a senator, but having told her story, she’s no longer just their representative: She’s one of them, and the difference between being the face of abortion in politics in the abstract, as a figurative representative of the people who’ve needed or will need abortions, to being a literal representative of some of the circumstances under which people have abortions, is significant. Her decision to tell her own story will strike many supporters as a powerful follow-up to the stories that she told from the floor of the Senate during her now-famous filibuster.
(AP Photo/The McAllen Monitor, Gabe Hernandez)