Feminism and pro-choice activists in the US have a new hero. Yesterday afternoon in Texas, state senator Wendy Davis embarked on a marathon filibuster speech to foil the passing of a bill imposing the strictest limitations on abortion in the US by preventing a vote before midnight. If passed, the bill will ban abortion after 20 weeks, as well as imposing restrictions that critics say will force almost all of the state’s abortion clinics to close. Backed by overwhelming support from both within and outside the US, Davis was not allowed to eat, sit or take a toilet break during the proceedings. “The leadership may not want to listen to TX women,” she wrote on Twitter, “but they will have to listen to me.”
Unfortunately, the GOP felt otherwise, and succeeded in halting the speech after nearly 11 hours. Yet perhaps it was their refusal to listen that proved their downfall; at a quarter to midnight, when lawmakers tried to silence her, Senator Leticia Van de Putte asked: “At what point must a female senator raise her voice or her hand to be recognised over the male colleagues in the room?” The fifteen minutes of cheering that followed forced the vote in which the bill was passed past the midnight deadline. Like Davis, Van de Putte had forced the leadership to listen.
Hours of confusion followed, during which screencaps were posted online showing that the date of the final vote had been changed on the Texas Legislature’s website. At 3am, legislators ruled that the vote was void and the bill had fallen.
This marked an incredible victory for feminist and pro-choice campaigners. As Davis said, "Might it just be a desire to limit women's access to safe, healthy, legal, constitutionally-protected abortions in the state of Texas?" It’s difficult to see how the bill could be anything other than either a religiously-motivated attack on women’s rights from the nominally Christian far-right, or a cynical attempt to appeal to right-wing voters. Whether political or ideological, the bill is merely the latest in a string of assaults on women’s reproductive rights from the Grand Old Party.
Time and again they have proved the accusations that they are waging a ‘War on Women’ are not unfounded. Their attempts to restrict reproductive rights range from the “detectable heartbeat” measures banning abortions at six weeks in North Dakota, to laws forcing every woman requesting an abortion to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound in Michigan and Wisconsin (in the chillingly named ‘Woman’s Right to Know her Unborn Child Act’) among others. Nor are their efforts restricted to policy; there seems to be a near-constant barrage of misogyny stemming from high-profile Republicans.
This bill is a matter of both choice and safety. According to the Guttmacher Institute, highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. Desperate women will continue to seek out abortions, and a failure to provide access to safe, regulated procedures increases the risk of women undergoing unsafe abortions. This is no small consideration; complications arising from unsafe procedures accounted for around 13 per cent of all maternal deaths worldwide in 2007 and 2008.
Attempts to legitimise the vote made a mockery of the democratic system; what’s more, they pushed at the boundaries of common decency. Counting another senator helping Davis into a back brace among the three strikes needed to derail the filibuster seemed to me a particularly thuggish and inhumane way to force the issue. Ignoring protests from the gallery, the attempt to cheat the system demonstrated the sheer brute force with which lawmakers hoped to pass the bill, and the apparent widely-held contempt for women’s rights within the party.
It is because this contempt is so deeply ingrained that this victory is so significant. The bill will be fought again, but let us hope that people like Davis can succeed a second time. I suspect that this defeat will haunt the GOP for some time, just like Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” – a gaffe echoed on Twitter last night by people protesting the illegitimacy of the vote. Warnings that female bodies in the senate have ways to “shut the whole thing down” proved true, as shut it down they did