By now, you’ve probably heard the “news” that Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis included stories of terminating two pregnancies—one ectopic, one a case of extreme fetal anomaly—in her upcoming memoir. After the San Antonio Express-News obtained an advance copy of the book, Forgetting To Be Afraid, it ran its first piece on the story late Friday evening.
Thanks to that article, and the flurry of ones that followed, you’ve also probably heard how Davis’ Republican gubernatorial opponent, Greg Abbott, feels about Wendy Davis’ abortion stories. Similarly, you’ve likely learned how spokespersons for Texas’ two most influential anti-choice lobby groups feel about those stories, too.
And if you’re like me, you may feel that it’s wildly inappropriate to ask anyone but Wendy Davis herself how she feels about making two private medical decisions with the counsel of her doctors and family.
It’s not that I don’t understand the media’s inclination to get reaction quotes from Davis’ opponent, or from the anti-choice groups that have tried, over the past year, to paint Davis as the champion of a baby-killing radical left. This seems to have become standard journalistic practice. However, it’s also one that turns a family’s story, and a personal decision, into a game of political ping-pong in the name of so-called unbiased news.
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As my friend and fellow writer Jessica Luther astutely observed on Twitter after the Express-News story ran, Davis owed her stories to no one. Her decision to share her experiences is tremendously brave, especially considering the multitude of ways in which Davis has been viciously targeted by anti-choice conservatives. Following Davis’ headline-making filibuster of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion bill last year—a bill that anti-choice lawmakers filed and passed in two special legislative sessions after promising not to enact any new anti-abortion legislation—anti-choice activists derided her as “Abortion Barbie,” simply for taking a stand in a fight that she never started. In light of Davis’ decision to write candidly about having to terminate two medically untenable pregnancies, such a moniker now seems especially cruel.
By asking a lobbyist who would like to overturn Roe v. Wade and force pregnant people to carry every fetus to term or die trying, to weigh in on the private medical decisions of others, journalists are exposing Davis to that uncalled-for dialogue again. In other words, reporters are giving equal weight, and a broad platform, to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of people like Texas Alliance for Life spokesperson Joe Pojman—a man who is not Wendy Davis, who 20 years ago was not involved in Davis’ decision to end a much-wanted pregnancy—as to Davis herself.
For his part, Pojman told the news media that his group does not “favor or advise abortion in cases when the unborn child has disabilities, just as we cannot advocate taking the life of a newly born child who has severe disabilities,” not-so-obliquely implying that Davis, and those who have been forced to make similar decisions to end unsustainable pregnancies, have more or less murdered disabled babies.
As if there is some vital “other side” that needs to be asked to rate the legitimacy of Davis’ decision, without which a news piece could not possibly be complete. And as if that “other side” is best represented by people like Melissa Conway, a spokesperson for Texas Right To Life—and a likely stranger to Wendy Davis—who makes her political living trying to pass anti-choice laws. Conway, who has gone farther than Pojman in using Davis’ personal abortion story as a political cudgel, has been unfailingly patronizing in disseminating her thoughts about Davis’ abortion decisions to the media, presuming that Davis suffers from some kind of (medically unfounded) post-abortion depression syndrome and chastising Davis for her and her husband’s decision.
“Regardless of how severe or hopeless a diagnosis may be,” Conway told the Texas Tribune, “the dignity of life remains unaltered by disability and disappointment.”
If only Davis had had the loving blessing of Melissa Conway breathing down her neck 20 years ago. If only Davis had had a total stranger with no medical degree telling her how to define “the dignity of life” for herself and her family.
Of course, the classy thing for folks like Pojman and Conway to do would be to decline to be quoted, or to say that they respect Davis’ privacy and cannot comment on the circumstances of her abortions. But that would run counter to everything the anti-choice right-wing believes: that the government has a right to ensure that every pregnancy is carried to term, that miscarriages must be investigated and criminalized, and that the rights of a zygote or a fetus always trump the rights of the person carrying it. Or, in sum: that every pregnancy is public property.
To be fair, reporters have also published reactions to Davis’ memoir from the leaders of groups like NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and Planned Parenthood. The difference, I think, lies in pro-choice organizations’ ability to recognize and appreciate the complexities of Davis’ decisions in a way that opens up, rather than shuts down, much-needed conversations about trusting families and the role that government should play in private medical decisions.
“Every pregnancy is different,” said NARAL Pro-Choice Texas director Heather Busby in a statement released late on Friday. She continued, “All options must be available to ensure the health and safety of families without lawmakers making decisions that don’t belong to them.”
As long as the mainstream media situates the Joe Pojmans and Melissa Conways of the world alongside Wendy Davis as being equally reliable sources on the subject of Wendy Davis’ abortions, though, we will continue to fail the millions of Americans who have chosen legal abortion over the years, and who have been subsequently shamed into silence. And we will also keep pushing nuanced, thoughtful discussions about pregnancy and reproductive rights out of the way to make room for extremism, polemics, and political posturing.
Perhaps, then, there is one good that comes out of pretending that Greg Abbott, Joe Pojman, and Melissa Conway have anything meaningful whatsoever to say about Davis’ private medical decisions. With every new statement, they highlight the widening gulf between reasonable Texans—if we’re anything like the rest of the country, statistically speaking, 1 in 3 of us has ended a pregnancy, and two-thirds of us who chose to do so were already parents—and the conservative lawmakers and lobbyists who feel entitled to weigh in on every family’s private medical decisions, even if they need a time machine to do so.