There were a few quotable moments coming out of this past weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, which saw Governor Perry curiously bring up the recent death of Joan Rivers when discussing the abortion law that the Texas legislature passed last summer. But perhaps the most significant exchange occurred on Saturday’s panel on “The Women’s Health Debate,” between Molly White, Republican nominee for Texas House District 55 (which represents Temple), and Democratic Representative Dawnna Dukes, who represents District 46 (which represents East Austin and Travis County).
The discussion on Saturday was on abortion, a topic that’s been code-worded into “women’s health” in recent years, and White—the founder and director of anti-abortion group Women for Life International—whose personal narrative against the procedure includes the psychological impact that two abortions she received had on her, challenged Dukes’ argument that the perception of the psychological effects of the procedure are misunderstood:
Republican Molly White, who is running unopposed to represent House District 55, said that women who have not had abortions don’t have the same understanding about the effects of the procedure.
“To the world, I had an abortion,” Dukes shot back, adding that she had not suffered from any psychological effects because of the procedure.
White’s challenge to Dukes reveals a few things: Chief among them, the fact that abortion is a more common procedure than we take it to be. Whatever the stereotype is of women who’ve had abortions, Dukes—who’s been representing Texans in the legislature for two decades, and who owns the DM Dukes and Associates consulting firm—does not resemble them. It’s hard to imagine that, when White insisted that only women who’ve had abortions were qualified to discuss the impact of the procedure, she expected that Dukes would have a personal experience to draw from. But if one in three women will have abortions in their lifetimes, then it’s probably not safe to assume that any given women hasn’t had one.
The other thing to consider, coming out of White’s assertion that personal experience with abortion is part of the requirement to discuss it, is that many of the people who stand with White in opposing the procedure haven’t got that experience, either. “You can’t remark on abortion unless you’ve had one” is an interesting standard to apply to Dawnna Dukes, if it hasn’t been applied to, say, State Senator Glenn Hegar, who introduced the abortion-restricting HB 2 in the Texas Senate last year.
Of course, we don’t talk about abortion the way we talk about much else, when it comes to either medical procedures or legislation, which perhaps helps explain this disconnect. Governor Perry may have drawn headlines by bringing up Joan Rivers in the context of a discussion about abortion laws, but it’s worth noting that the procedure that ultimately led to the comedian’s death doesn’t have a powerful legislative movement aimed in its direction. Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that a legislator attempting to pass criminal justice reform would insist that a colleague who hasn’t been incarcerated can’t fully understand the issue, or that a lack of firsthand experience with business property taxes disqualifies a legislator from taking action on the issue.
On the other hand, abortion rights supporters have for years argued that male legislators overstep their bounds when they press legislation that restricts the procedure, too. Presumably they didn’t anticipate the founder of Women For Life affirming the view that people without a personal stake in abortion are unqualified to take leadership on the issue, but politics, as they say, makes strange—and perhaps unintentional—bedfellows.
(AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)