Nine years ago, former state Sen. Wendy Davis stood on the floor of the Texas Senate in pink sneakers for 13 uninterrupted hours in an attempt to block a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks into a pregnancy and shut down a majority of the state’s clinics.
Back then, she and other reproductive rights advocates in the Legislature thought those efforts by Texas Republicans to restrict abortion access would be “as bad as it could get.” They were buoyed by their confidence that they had the law of the land on their side: Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to an abortion.
And although the Legislature ultimately passed the law she protested, the U.S. Supreme Court would later strike it down, yet again affirming the legal right to the procedure.
But on Friday, the unthinkable happened. Davis, who has staked her political career on the fight for reproductive rights, was devastated by the news that the nation’s highest court had overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It’s incalculable what this harm will be,” Davis said.
Elsewhere in Texas, state Rep. Donna Howard was mired in a similar sense of grief.
“I am absolutely reeling right now,” Howard said. “I don’t think we even have a clue about how devastating this is going to be.”
The two women are among the most ardent abortion rights advocates to come out of the Legislature in recent years. In separate interviews with The Texas Tribune on Friday, they expressed a sense of sorrow and outcry over the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to ban abortions, adding even more enormous obstacles to what was already an uphill battle to protect reproductive rights in a state controlled by conservatives. They also said they’re worried this is just the beginning of a sustained movement by Republicans to chip away at even more reproductive health protections, like contraception.
At the same time, they said Texans must try to be hopeful and that the ruling should light a fire under people who will fight for change.
Friday’s decision had been expected — a draft of the court’s opinion was leaked last month — but Davis and Howard said that didn’t make the ruling any less horrifying. Texas has a trigger law, which means the overturning of Roe v. Wade will automatically make abortion illegal in Texas, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The law goes into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court’s judgment, which typically comes about a month after the initial opinion has been handed down.
Nonetheless, clinics across Texas said Friday they were pausing abortion services immediately.
Davis gained nationwide attention after the filibuster in 2013 and has since become a leading voice for abortion access in a state at the forefront of efforts to restrict abortion rights. She ran for governor in 2014 but lost badly to Gov. Greg Abbott. She filed a federal lawsuit in April in response to Texas’ abortion law passed last year — which effectively banned abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — claiming the law was “blatantly unconstitutional” and was written “to make a mockery of the federal courts.”
The issue is personal for Davis, who terminated two pregnancies in the 1990s. One was an ectopic pregnancy, and in the other, doctors discovered a brain abnormality in the fetus.
“I exercised my choice to terminate that pregnancy, making a decision that was deeply personal, tremendously hard and born out of love,” Davis said. “I’m so sad, regardless of the circumstances, for women who won’t be able to make that decision.”
Howard has been a state representative since 2006. She is a registered nurse and the chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus. She has also been vocal about her opposition to last year’s abortion law, and she testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last year about its effects.
Howard’s mission to protect reproductive rights was inspired in part by her daughter. Eleven weeks into her daughter’s pregnancy in 2015, a doctor discovered the fetus had no heartbeat, according to reporting by the Texas Observer. The doctor recommended a procedure to remove the tissue from inside her uterus. Before the procedure, Howard’s daughter found out Seton Medical Center Austin requires all fetal remains to be buried after a miscarriage.
The experience helped fuel Howard’s legislative push to not force patients who miscarry to consent to fetal burials. In 2017, despite Howard’s efforts, the state Legislature passed a bill to mandate fetal burial or cremation to respect the lives of the unborn. A judge struck down the law a year later.
“[Abortion] is something that’s very common to all of us,” Howard said. “The way the laws have been written to ban abortion have been done in such a way that they have not considered the impacts on the lives of so many of us, the damage that is done, the hurt that is forced upon us.”
The Supreme Court ruling Friday was the culmination of a decadeslong, unrelenting campaign by anti-abortion advocates to overturn Roe v. Wade, Davis and Howard said. The inevitability of the ruling crystallized after former President Donald Trump appointed three justices to the Supreme Court, giving conservatives a commanding 6-3 majority.
“The courts have been able to be a backstop to anti-abortion legislation and efforts throughout these many years,” Howard said. “The courts have basically turned their backs on the majority of Americans who support access to abortion.”
The two Texans warned that the fight to curb reproductive rights is far from over. After the court’s draft opinion leaked in May, some state Republicans said they wanted to target businesses that said they’d help employees who try to get abortions outside of Texas.
Beyond that, they worry about efforts to restrict contraceptive care, the morning-after pill and in vitro fertilization. Davis pointed to the platform the Texas Republican Party voted on last week — a nonbinding list of priorities — that said life starts at fertilization.
“And if that is the case, then we are talking about the complete stripping away of any of these other rights,” Davis said.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion Friday that the court should reconsider rulings upholding rights to contraception, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriages.
Davis and Howard also emphasized that abortion will not go away after the ruling — its illegality just forces people to resort to more dangerous methods to terminate pregnancies. And the people facing those risks are often of a lower socioeconomic status and cannot afford to travel to another state where the procedure is legal.
“It’s always been difficult for women of limited means to access health care that they need, including abortion health care. That will only get worse now,” Howard said. “Those that will be left out are those that are probably going to be in the most dire straits.”
Howard called on Congress to codify abortion rights into law. That’s highly unlikely given the measure would require 60 votes in the U.S. Senate. Congressional Republicans on Friday floated the idea of a federal law to ban abortions after 15 weeks into a pregnancy.
Howard also said the state Legislature should add exceptions for rape and incest in its trigger law. The law has exceptions only to save the life of the pregnant person or if they risk “substantial impairment of major bodily function.”
“Which means we have to wait until she’s dying,” Howard said.
Howard also called on Republicans to increase access to maternal care services.
“If they are claiming to support life and this is in place to bring more life into Texans homes, then let’s make sure we’re giving them the safety net to have the healthiest pregnancy and deliveries and babies possible,” Howard said.
The two also stressed the importance of voting. State government elections will only become more important, Howard said, since state officials will now decide whether to allow abortions in their states.
Davis also called for attention to statewide races.
“Our governor and lieutenant governor and [attorney general] races just got all the more important,” Davis said. “I hope that [voters will] decide that this is a moment we all need to collectively rise to and demonstrate our upset at the ballot box.”
People also need to lean on and empower one another, Davis and Howard said.
They said they understand millions of women don’t feel especially hopeful right now. But they said people have to lean in to whatever hope they can find to help people get access to abortions.
“There’s no alternative but to be hopeful,” Davis said. “We cannot be resigned to this reality. And the outcome for our daughters and granddaughters is too important for us to give up.”
“It took 50 years to overturn [Roe v. Wade]. And it’s going to take us hopefully not 50 years to restore,” Howard added. “There is hope. We just have to get out there and make it happen.”
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