Gathering in the rotunda. Drop in the bucket of orange pro-choice supporters.
This morning I woke up after a surreal night with a lot on my mind. One phrase in particular was ringing in my ears: “Don’t be naive, Amy.”
Back when I quit writing for CultureMap Austin over a nasty, misogynist editorial masquerading as a news story by the Dallas staff, the business manager (then–he’s since been fired) called me up on the phone to “discuss” my decision.
What he really wanted was to cajole or shame me into reversing my position–if not publicly, at least in a private phone call. He talked in circles, but having survived grad school, I am not easily confused even by smart people talking in circles, much less idiots. While some of the details of the call have become fuzzy in my mind, one stands out. After he had failed to make his arguments look logical for half an hour, he went ahead and said what bullies always say in situations like this:
“Don’t be naive, Amy. We both know how this works. This is going to be news for about ten minutes, and then it’s going to blow over, and we’ll be fine. Why would we apologize?”
* * * * *
Yesterday, I went to the Capitol wearing a faded orange UT shirt to stand in an orange block of women’s rights advocates protesting the omnibus anti-choice legislation being forced through using Rick Perry’s weapon of choice, a special session, which allows Republicans to circumvent ordinary procedural rules.
I have never done anything like that before. I was in Chicago last week when my husband signed up along with 700 other citizens who had assembled, amazingly, in under 24 hours to testify against the bill in a public hearing. He was silenced in the early hours of the morning along with 300 other citizens when proceedings were shut down and testimony was arbitrarily cut off. I followed it all on the internet from O’Hare and promised myself that if it was still going on when I got back, I would surmount my embarrassment about my political ignorance and go there too.
I went to the Capitol because reading about Thursday night’s proceedings made me wish I had the chance to show the world that Texans care about the rights of women.
In case you don’t know what the legislation would do, find some background here andhere, or just Google SB5. The information’s out there. The most important thing is that it will introduce burdensome restrictions that will shut down abortion providers statewide, leaving only 5 in the entire state of Texas.
Have you seen the state of Texas recently? It’s the size of France. 26 million people live here. About 13 million of them are women.
About 9.75 million of those women live in the “urban triangle” in close-ish (close is a relative term in a state this big) proximity to Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio. Those 9.75 million women would have their pick of 5 abortion providers, assuming they were willing and able to drive up to 6 hours to get one.And, you know, if there’s not a line.
The other 3.25 million women in Texas live in rural areas, in the Rio Grande Valley, in the Panhandle, in the long stretch of rocky desert that is West Texas. Many of these women suffer under conditions of poverty and marginalization that most Americans don’t believe still exist in their country. Pleading for exceptions, a rep from the Valley testified that many of her constituents don’t have running water or indoor plumbing. These Texans are uninsured, and because of the dismantling of the Texas Women’s Health Program, they have no access to breast cancer screenings, cervical cancer screenings, STD screenings and prevention, and, of course, birth control. We also, as a state, withhold sex education from these women and girls.
(And always remember, when we talk about women getting health care, we are also talking about girls, children as young as 12, who cannot give their consent but somehow get pregnant anyway due to their extreme vulnerability to sexual abuse and assault, especially in impoverished and underserved communities.)
As a representative from a rural district pointed out last night, to ask these women to somehow pick up and drive 400 miles to a San Antonio clinic within the time frame and restrictions already dictated by Texas law (don’t forget that ultrasound, ladies!) is absurd, stunning, and laughable. (Is cryable a word?)
The irony of all this, the disgusting, horrific irony, is that the Republicans pushing this legislation have the unbridled gall to suggest that they are doing it “to protect women.” They are doing it under the auspices of increasing safety standards. They say that currently abortion providers have medical standards no better than “butcher shops.”
Do they understand what an actual “butcher shop” is? Because they will. Back-alley butcher shops will pop up like mushrooms if these bills go through. And we will learn a bloody lesson about what it means to vote “pro-life.” We will learn it on women’s bodies.
* * * * *
Now here’s the part where Amy, naive Amy, gets politicized. Are you ready? Because I went down to the Capitol with butterflies in my stomach, not just because of my ignorance of the political process, but because of my untested views on abortion, views I have never had to examine, explain, or defend at length, to myself or others.
I know that abortion is a moral, religious, ethical, and philosophical issue for many people. You don’t have to be a religious zealot to see that there are serious questions to be posed, especially in later-term pregnancy. As a doctor friend of mine told me, at 20 weeks, a fetus is approaching viability. There is a case to be made for restrictions after 20 weeks (though not, I want to emphasize, a ban). [There are already intense restrictions on these abortions in the state of Texas, and women who must make this difficult decision for medical reasons face enormous stigma. Please see the comments section for some of those women’s stories. -Oed]
I will say it again: There is room for a real, legitimate debate about the specific terms and restrictions surrounding abortion.
So why should you still be out there screaming, “My body, my life, my right to decide,” with the orange-shirted women and men at the Capitol? If you have conflicting feelings, if you take the ethical concerns surrounding abortion at face value, why should you stand up and shake your fist and yell at the top of your lungs for “choice”?
Because the debate will never happen. Because it’s all a big fucking sham.
Don’t be naive, Amy, I can hear you saying. You didn’t know it was a sham? You thought Texas Republicans were actually invested in women’s health when they introduced this bill, in making medical procedures safer for women?
I wasn’t that naive. But I did think that state reps maybe, just maybe, had ethical and moral objections to abortion.
I no longer believe this is the case.
If they did, they would have debated the issue.
If they did, they would have answered questions about their own bill.
If they did, they wouldn’t have been playing Candy Crush on their cell phones, talking loudly to one another, milling around the floor, snoozing in their chairs, and cutting up like a pack of fourth-grade boys in gym class.
They wouldn’t have been showing each other stuff on their laptops and slapping each other on the back during nonpartisan testimony from the Texas Medical Association that as written, the legislation would introduce a new medical threat to all pregnant women because of a chilling effect on doctors—not abortion providers, mind you, we’re talking about ob/gyns—preventing them from making medical decisions to save the life of mother and child.
They wouldn’t have been smiling and bursting into unrelated laughter as a Democratic rep testified about the difficulty he and his wife had of conceiving their first child, speaking movingly of how serious and complicated an issue abortion was for him.
They wouldn’t have been facing the opposite direction or talking loudly on their cell phones when Rep. Dukes told the story of a woman she met who went through a botched, back-alley abortion before Roe V. Wade.
If Republican Pat Fallon, for instance, gave a shit about the life of the fetus, he wouldn’t have spent the entire eight hours of debate sneaking potato chips from a manila envelope, doing bizarre little dances from his chair, and brandishing a yardstick like a play sword to poke his buddies in the butt as they walked by. But Rep. Pat Fallon wasn’t actually fighting for the life of anything but his own political career. And all he had to do to accomplish that goal was to ignore every logical argument, compassionate plea, and harrowing anecdote delivered that night, just plug his fat little ears and pretend he was back in the frat house. Mission accomplished.
House Republicans visibly not giving a shit. Couldn’t catch the yardstick in action, sadly. It was hilarious though.
The blue-shirted true believers up in the gallery cared. They (or, more probably, others like them from out of town) elected him to fight for their pro-life agenda, and as far as they are concerned, he is doing his job, more or less. But do not for one second think it’s because he cares about the pro-life agenda. I watched him like a hawk last night, and while he provided plenty of much-needed amusement in the small hours of the morning, I guarantee you ladies and gentlemen, he did not care.
Rep. Farrar (Democrat from Houston) cared. She lost her voice after 19 hours of logical, compassionate, well-spoken argumentation that she knew was futile. Never once did Dems fall into meaningless chatter, not even after the bill’s supposed author (read: figurehead), Rep. Laubenberg, refused to answer further questions about her own bill. (I would think it was a strategic move, given her ridiculous gaffes–including demonstrating she literally has no idea what a rape kit is–but honestly she was probably just tired of pretending to care.) Rep. Dawnna Dukes (from the EAST SIDE baby! And classy as they come!) cared. She made reasonable, detailed, informed arguments, and delivered her last piece of well-crafted rhetoric at 3 in the morning in a crystal-clear voice. There were more. Believe me, I will figure out who is fighting for me, and I will thank them, individually, in emails when this is all over.
The amazing Rep. Sylvester Turner from Houston said it best in his rousing speech at the end of the night. I can’t find the exact quote on the internet, but the gist of it was this: If abortion is such a goddam serious issue, why wasn’t this legislation introduced earlier? Why was it introduced in a special session designed to push past all procedural rules and force the issue in a matter of days, with no chance for reasoned debate on both sides?
“What you vote for in the dark of night, you will be accountable for in the light of day!” he thundered, and the gallery, disobeying the House rules for the first time in 14 hours, burst into shouts and applause. Rep. Turner gestured toward us and demanded to know, if this was such an important issue, why we had been silenced during the public hearing? Why wouldn’t Republicans defend their bill, or even answer questions about it, or consider any amendments?
The only answer of sorts came from the gallery, in the form of applause, and it was of course immediately suppressed with threats to remove us. The reps on the floor? They did not feel the need to look up from their Blackberries and iPhones, their potato chips and their yardsticks, their private conversations about the game or whatever else was on their minds.
Meanwhile, we who cared enough to sit there silently, powerlessly, for 14 hours were not even allowed to wiggle our fingers in the “silent clap” of solidarity. We who lined the gallery on all four sides, we who cared enough to be up in the middle of the night, were kept to the strictest rules of decorum, while overgrown frat boys threw figurative spitballs at one another on the floor during this serious debate.
It was a fucking sham.
Shhhh, no clapping from up there! This is just a tiny fraction of the folks who stayed into the night.
* * * * *
So by now you must be asking yourself: Is Amy still naive? Unbelievably, the answer is yes.
Despite the amazing cynicism I saw down on the floor last night, I am still naive enough to believe that my visible and vocal support of women’s rights will make a difference. And so are the hundreds of other orange-shirted Texans—more than a thousand all told, both women and the men who support us because they understand that we are all people, goddammit it. We are incredibly naive. We are naive enough to believe that our presence mattered, that it filled the House Dems with spirit and pride and motivation to do the most thankless work imaginable on the House floor: taking an issue seriously that Republicans in our state honestly could give a flying fuck about, so long as they get reelected.
We who are the under-dogs can afford to be naive, because we’ve got nothing but our bodies to lose.
*Read my follow-up account of Tuesday’s filibuster here.