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How to Reveal You Had an Abortion

A guide for Wendy Davis and other politicians

AP Photo/The McAllen Monitor/Gabe Hernandez

I don’t mean to suggest that there is some right or wrong way to tell an abortion story, but when Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis recently revealed that she had ended two pregnancies, it felt a bit like a missed opportunity. Personal revelations about abortion remain rare and radical. This one should’ve started a fresh conversation about increased restrictions in Texas, or at least brought some clarity to her campaign. It did none of that. 

Eight weeks before an election she’s predicted to lose to Republican Greg Abbott, Davis published a memoir. In it, she describes a pregnancy she terminated in her early 30s that was ectopic and therefore unsustainable; its first trimester end was classified in Texas as an abortion. Two years later, during the second trimester of a much-wanted pregnancy, Davis and her then-husband learned that the baby she was carrying, a girl they had already named Tate, suffered from a brain abnormality that made it unlikely for her to survive to term. If born alive, doctors told the Davises, their daughter would likely be deaf, blind, and in a permanent vegetative state. After weeks of deliberation, the couple opted to end the pregnancy.

Davis’s rendering of this event is terribly sad and built on intimate particulars. She writes of cold gels and sonogram wands, the trembling hands of her doctor upon diagnosis. These details, down to the repositioning of the obstetric chair after the exam is over, are familiar to millions of women. And, crucially, they are unfamiliar to millions of men. That’s because the business of caring for a reproductive body is female business, its realities usually shrouded from public view.

Even well-meaning men don’t know the feeling of an unborn child moving inside them, a sensation that Davis describes, excruciatingly, as the turning point in her decision-making process: When she felt Tate’s body, “tremble violently, as if someone were applying an electric shock to her,” she finally accepted her doctors’ prognosis and chose to end her daughter’s suffering through abortion. The men who dominate politics—who often aren’t well-meaning—have no context for understanding what it might be like for a woman to physically feel a compromised fetus spasm inside of her.

Peter Dazeley

Just consider Texas’s omnibus abortion bill, which is making its way through the courts right now. The legislation would close all but a handful of clinics in the state and ban abortion after 20 weeks—the point at which many fetal abnormalities, including the one Davis’s unborn daughter had, are typically diagnosed. Davis clearly had an opportunity to tie her experiences to those of all the women this law will hurt. But like much of her ill-starred campaign for governor, the rollout of Davis’s abortion story was bungled.

First, it came late. Since rising to national prominence through her bravura 2013 filibuster against Texas’s worsening abortion restrictions, Davis has worked to distance herself from the fight; in February, she suggested that she might not object to a 20-week ban. Now, expected to lose badly, she has returned to the issue of abortion, leaving herself open to charges that she’s making craven use of personal tragedy. One particularly reptilian columnist at The National Review went so far as to suggest that Davis’s abortion recollections might have been fabricated for political effect.

But part of what makes those right-wing allegations so galling is that her story was not crafted to have maximum political effect. For all its emotional detail, Davis’s recollections lacked crucial information that might have connected her experience to the larger legislative questions on hand. Davis doesn’t specify in what week her abortion took place—only that the condition that precipitated it was diagnosed in her second trimester.

Of course, she isn’t obligated to reveal that information any more than she is obligated to tell her story in the first place, but the omission means that she’s not in a position to directly point out what might well be true: that she would not have been able to make the decision she did under her state’s new restrictions. She and her family and her unborn baby would have suffered more and for longer, just as women are forced to suffer more and for longer wherever access to reproductive care is dangerously curtailed. Davis simply doesn’t go there, even while citing the similar story of another woman—a story she read, and that brought her to tears, during her filibuster—which concluded with the to-the-point observation, “If a twenty-week ban had been in place four years ago, then I wouldn’t have been able to make this choice.”

I don’t want to sound crass. I am grateful to Davis for having added her experiences—at no small cost to herself and her privacy—to the slowly growing public understanding of why women need safe and affordable access to abortion throughout their pregnancies.

But Davis isn’t just telling her story; she’s telling her story in the context of an important political contest and a policy fight, and it’s too bad that she had to do the miserable work of revelation without much political pay-off. We know how powerful women’s lived experience can be within political discourse. Davis herself showed us that power when she suggested, during her filibuster, that her Texas legislative colleagues lacked interest in women’s reproductive freedoms because so many of them “have never ever had to face that and will never face it, because you don’t have the equipment. [But] I’ve got it and my daughters have it, and other women that I care about have it and women who I don’t know have it.”

It was a great example of how charging into a political debate armed simply with your own experiences can make a noticeable impact. There have been other recent examples: Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, released a memoir on the same day Davis did and wrote of male political colleagues who commented, both appreciatively and disparagingly, about her body and appearance. These anecdotes were greeted with skepticism from some who wondered about Gillibrand’s unwillingness to name names, but they provided a bracingly realistic, too-rarely-described view of what professional life for women in male-dominated spheres feels like. 

Meanwhile, in Nevada, Lucy Flores, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, testified in 2013 about her own abortion, at age 16, during hearings about expanding sex education in her state. Her story was remarkable both because she freely admitted that her choice was not medically indicated and that she did not regret it—it had made the rest of her life, her education, and her political work possible—and because it was deployed in the context of a policy fight directly related to teen pregnancy rates.  

Just a few years ago, these unapologetic admissions would have been unthinkable. Yes, socially conservative women, running on “family values” platforms, occasionally mined their reproductive histories as source material. Sarah Palin’s tale of deciding not to end a pregnancy after a Down syndrome diagnosis endeared her to powerful anti-abortion factions in her party. But for women on the left, stories about female life that were anything less than peppy were discouraged. No talking about the economic tolls of parenthood or the unequal distribution of domestic expectation, no talking about birth control or abortions, no describing instances of sexism, lest any of this stuff suggest that the candidate in question is a whiner, a victim, or, really... a woman.

In 2010, a study of female candidates revealed that it was becoming more effective for women to acknowledge sexist attacks than to simply ignore them. Around the same time, we began to hear more women opening up—via snappy comebacks or emotionally resonant debate rejoinders—about the facts of female life. And we began to see how rhetorically corrective those facts could be.

In 2009, during a Senate debate on the health care bill, Arizona Republican Jon Kyl averred that he didn’t see why he had to pay for insurance that covered maternity care, since he himself had never required it—the kind of argument that might well have gone unchallenged by a chamber full of other non-maternity-care-needing guys. But this chamber wasn’t full of just other guys, and Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow jumped in to note, with a deadly smile, that while Kyl may not have needed obstetric attention, “I think your mom probably did.”

Even more vivid was an exchange on the House floor in 2011, during debate over defunding Planned Parenthood. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith had read aloud from a book a gruesome description of a second-trimester abortion, when California Democrat Jackie Speier took the floor, explaining that, while she’d planned to talk about something else, Smith had put her “stomach in knots.”

“I’m one of those women he spoke about just now,” Speier said. “I had a procedure at seventeen weeks pregnant with a child that had moved from the [uterus] into the cervix. And that procedure that you just talked about is a procedure that I endured.” For Smith to “stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly,” Speier explained to Smith, “is preposterous.”

What we can learn from Speier, Flores, Gillibrand, and Stabenow—and also from Davis’s past hits and recent misses—is that the delicate but forceful act of self-exposure is tricky. It requires good timing, a steady voice, a clear intention. It also helps to be very, very direct about how a personal experience has bearing on the case you’re making or the attitudes or policies you’re resisting.

And no one understands how powerful these revelations can be better than the men who feel most threatened by them. Just think of that National Review columnist treating Davis’s story not as a crime or a sin, but as a secret weapon so dangerous that she must have invented it. What he sees—perhaps more clearly than Davis herself—is how profoundly things can change when women raise their voices in realms where they were once urged to remain silent.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Davis’s account of her abortion. The text has been updated.