Lessons in democracy from Texas’ abortion debate


The crowd gathered outside the capitol on the first day of the second special session called by Rick Perry. Photo by Alex Clark

The crowd gathered outside the capitol on the first day of the second special session called by Rick Perry. Photo by Alex Clark

By Nathaniel French

During last week’s special session, pro-life legislators in Texas managed to pass one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Nominally, the bill restricts procedures after 20 weeks and imposes new, stringent safety regulations. In practice and by design, it will force many of the state’s clinics to shut down.

In June, when the bill was first set to come up for a vote, all signs pointed to easy passage (this is Texas, after all). But then state senator Wendy Davis put on her pink sneakers and everything changed. What followed was nothing short of a fight for the meaning of democracy.

Filibustering Mr. Smith style, Davis spoke for over eleven hours in order to run down the clock on the session and prevent a vote. When Republicans used parliamentary rules to cut off her speech with minutes to spare, the crowds that had gathered in the gallery erupted in chants of “let her speak” and the bill never made it.

The filibuster, which was viewed live online by more than 180,000 people, became a rallying cry for abortion-rights supporters around the nation. When Governor Rick Perry called another session to push the bill through, thousands of protesters descended on Austin. Inspired by Davis’s example, they came ready to make a scene.

Some tried to chain themselves to the railing of the gallery. Others reportedly attempted to bring jars of urine and feces into the capital building. One used her allotted time for testimony and the cameras that came with it to insult the bill’s backers by name. A few were forcibly removed from the chamber. On Friday, with another vote scheduled, the line of spectators trying to get in stretched from the third floor to the basement.

While abortion-rights advocates applauded this outspoken energy, Perry took a more critical view. “I’m all about honest, open debate,” he said after the filibuster. “But what we witnessed Tuesday was nothing more than the hijacking of the democratic process.” He later said that the chants coming from the gallery had been an unprecedented form of “mob rule.”

In the narrowest sense, Perry has a point. Davis’s supporters–and many of the protesters who followed–were unruly, out of order, and disrespectful. By shouting loudly enough, they managed to derail ordinary legislative procedure and delay passage of a bill favored by a majority not only of senators but of Texans.

But democracy is about more than just who has the most votes. It’s also about demonstrations and petitions and filibusters and all the other aspects of civic life we hold so dear. It’s boisterous and often messy and occasionally rude.

Wendy Davis and the thousands she inspired weren’t hijacking the democratic process, they were taking part in it–proudly, vocally, and passionately. From the beginning they were fighting against long odds, but they showed up anyway and made their voices heard. That’s democracy at work.

Nathaniel French is a freelance writer based in New York City. He can be reached for comment via email.

Posted by on July 14, 2013. Filed under National Politics,Recent News,Top News,Women. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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