Wendy Davis and the Future of Abortion Rights

Was Wendy Davis’s valiant filibuster also in vain? After all, the Texas Legislature is set to reconvene this week and probably move to the governor the same measure she opposed last week, which would restrict access to abortion.

And it’s not just Texas, where Davis is a state senator: There are 27 other states that have already passed bills like the one Davis opposes, which would close all but five of Texas’s 42 abortion clinics. These laws use a subterfuge of regulation to undermine the constitutional guarantees of Roe v. Wade for more than 60 percent of U.S. women of reproductive age.

The forces gathered to undermine abortion rights -- including many who entered state legislatures in the 2010 elections -- are impressively thorough and dangerously extreme. Davis’s lone, passionate voice, even speaking for 10-plus hours, was never going to prevail against such a national juggernaut.

Yet the two sides are not as unequally matched as it might seem.

By the time Davis sat down, people opposed to the recent restrictions on abortion rights -- represented not only by the noisy throngs in the Texas Capitol but also some 200,000 watching Davis’s filibuster on the Internet -- staged their first big public backlash. They demonstrated that, when pressed, the reasonable American center can push back against the extreme elements opposed to abortion.

Where do Americans stand on this most contentious of issues? According to the Gallup Organization, 20 percent want abortion to be illegal in all circumstances, 26 percent want it always to be legal, and 52 percent believe it should be somewhere in between -- a spectrum that has been constant since Roe was decided in 1973.

In recent years, defenders of abortion rights have been laying claim to the middle ground in part by editing their own argument. The abortion-on-demand-without-apology message of 30 or 40 years ago has shifted to a more moderate plea to uphold the standards of Roe -- and a more libertarian message about keeping abortion decisions private and out of government hands. As Davis said after her filibuster, “It’s big government intruding in private lives in Texas, and Texas values don’t cotton to that very well.”

In January, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood rather quietly announced the organization would no longer use the term “pro-choice,” saying it had come to seem frivolous.

No doubt, the term also seems narrow to an organization that wants the public to view abortion rights as part of a spectrum of women’s needs including contraception, reproductive health and child care. Abortions account for only 3 percent of the health services that Planned Parenthood clinics provide.

We don’t blame Planned Parenthood for wanting the argument to reflect the increasing reality that, while those who oppose abortion rights may be extremists, those who defend them -- even those as passionate as Wendy Davis -- are not.

There have been signs that voters are listening to the reasonable middle. In the 2012 election, for instance, U.S. Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana were turned away after making public comments questioning the need for abortion in cases of rape.

Davis and other legislators in states dominated by social conservatives are right to keep up the fight to protect abortion rights. Even if they lose their battles this week or next, this year or next, they shouldn’t be discouraged. They won’t be standing alone for long.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.