Texas state senator Wendy Davis has electrified the pro-choice movement. Not just because of her sheer endurance in a nearly 11-hour filibuster, not just because she stood up to condescension and sexism, and not just because she did it all with aplomb and grace. For pro-choice activists, it has felt far too infrequent that they've seen a Democrat – much less one from a deep red state like Texas – unabashedly support reproductive rights without an ounce of ambivalence or calls for elusive common ground.
Although there's a contagious exhilaration sweeping the pro-choice movement, a sober assessment of what politicians like Davis are up against is an essential reality check. The pro-choice activists – the "unruly mob," as Lt Gov David Dewhurst called them – who crammed the Texas Senate chamber Tuesday night were motivated by an escalating outrage at cruel restrictions on women's autonomy being imposed by male politicians at the behest of religious activists. Senate Bill 5 was a last straw, and the success of activists in blocking it (temporarily, at least) has sparked renewed enthusiasm around the country. Already there's talk of Davis winning a 2014 race for governor.
But to match the intensity of anti-choice activists, sustaining this sort of opposition is going to take perseverance. While it's clear that Davis is inspiring a movement, her supporters need to be in for a long haul just as anti-choice activists in Texas have patiently chipped away at abortion access and are still playing a long game to ban it altogether.
Religion in Texas, like everything else, is big. Small talk frequently is opened with the question, "Where do you go to church?" Governor Rick Perry convened his own megachurch in Houston's Reliant Stadium in 2011, just before he launched his failed presidential run. The crowd was fervent and very diverse. It was not just old white people gathered at a Christian Coalition of America reunion. Sure, the old guard was there – James and Shirley Dobson, founders of Focus on the Family, virtually passed the torch. But the new generation is more pentecostal, more racially diverse, young, old, and in between, and very committed to the idea that they are locked in a spiritual battle with Satanic forces that will destroy America with abortion and LBGT equality. They weren't there for Perry, necessarily; they believe they were called there.
Religious activism in Texas has been particularly successful at restricting access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. Whereas some Republicans pander to their anti-choice base, Perry has actually delivered. Before the pending bill, SB5, which the Senate will revisit in a special session on 1 July, Perry had pushed through other abortion restrictions including ultrasound requirements, waiting periods, and parental consent laws. He even signed one anti-abortion bill in a special ceremony in a Christian school on a Sunday morning.
Texas's lead has inspired other states to mimic its successes. A bill that passed the Ohio legislature last night includes a provision to create its own version of a program Perry has championed in Texas through which federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are used to finance crisis pregnancy centers, which offer Christian counseling designed to dissuade women from having abortions.
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It doesn't matter whether Perry is a "true believer", he has acted like one, and created a mold that few Republican successors would be inclined to break. In a 2010 speech at a fundraiser for a crisis pregnancy center, he said:
"I feel like I am in the garrison of an army that has devoted itself to the defense of the unborn, here in this state and across the country and am proud to be counted in the ranks."
The religious activists who call on him to ram anti-choice bills through the legislature view politics as a battle between good and evil. They believe they are on a mission from God to battle Satanic forces. In that same 2010 fundraiser speech, Perry described his mission as "bigger than any law or policy," of being engaged in a struggle not of "flesh and blood," but "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms".
Less than 36 hours after Davis's successful filibuster this week, Perry told anti-choice activists at the National Right to Life Committee convention that said it was "unfortunate" that Davis, the daughter of a single mother and one herself, did not draw an anti-choice conclusion from her own life experience. Davis beautifully replied that Perry's were "small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view".
Perry's demeaning comments, though, were very much drawn from the anti-abortion zeitgeist in Texas and elsewhere, which emphasizes what they claim is the redemptive power of foregoing an abortion. Activists using this approach say they are preaching love rather than condemnation, but Perry's remarks revealed the judgmentalism at the heart of it. To anti-choice voters, Perry's comments were commonplace. To pro-choice voters, they were an insult and a provocation.
The war on women is a powerful motivating force for supporters of reproductive rights. They should be clear-eyed, though, about the realities of what motivates their opponents.