Why It's Important To Focus on Her Abortion Story

When coverage of Wendy Davis’ memoir Forgetting To Be Afraid started to appear earlier this month, it seemed as though outlets wanted to discuss only nine pages of the entire book: Chapter Fourteen, the portion in which Davis writes about the two abortions she underwent. “Wendy Davis discloses abortion in her new memoir,” read one headline. “Wendy Davis tells of ending pregnancy,” another announced. “Wendy Davis Opens Up About Having An Abortion In Her Memoir,” said a third. And so on and so forth.

My gut reaction was admittedly a naïve one: I felt mildly irritated, for two reasons. First, I wasn’t all that surprised that the state senator who stood for 13 hours in order to protest a restrictive anti-abortion bill had a personal stake in the issue. (Thirty percent of women in the United States have had an abortion by age 45.) The coverage also seemed frustratingly one-dimensional. A prominent politician writes an autobiography chronicling her challenging childhood, young motherhood, graduation from college and Harvard Law, and remarkable political career — and no one was focusing on any of it.

After reading the book for myself, however, I realized how momentous it is for such a politician to write openly about both the emotional process of having an abortion and the physical procedure itself. Davis underwent two abortions during her second marriage, one for a pregnancy that wasn’t viable, and one when she found out the daughter she was pregnant would suffer greatly if she survived delivery, and live in a permanent vegetative state. It is the second abortion she focuses on in the memoir, describing to readers how much she and her then-husband wanted the baby, and how heartbreaking it was to lose her. Writes Davis:

I accompanied my doctor to the hospital and delivered Tate Elise Davis by cesarean section, just as I had when [daughters] Amber and Dru were born. The following day a dear friend who was a nurse in the unit where I delivered Tate brought her to me. She had dressed her in a tiny pink dress and placed a knit cap on her enlarged head. On her feet were crocheted booties, and next to her was a small crocheted pink bunny. Jeff and I spent the better part of the day holding her, crying for her and for us. We asked an associate minister from our church who was a trusted friend to come and baptize her. We took photographs of her. And we said our goodbyes. The next day, as I lay in the hospital sobbing, my hand over my now-empty womb, Tate’s lifeless body was taken away and cremated.

Davis spoke to Cosmoplitan about her decision to write about her abortions, saying:

I believe that when people understand the human beings behind what they see as political figures, it resonates differently. They understand… why we fight for whatever it is we fight for. … I felt so honored by the women, and the men who love them, who were willing to share deeply personal stories during the filibuster. … I wanted to honor them by telling my story too.

Bustle wrote that Davis’ memoir defies the abortion stigma, and it does so at a portentous time. Lately, there has been a push from different members of the pro-choice movement to move beyond simply fighting for the right to the procedure toward fighting the judgment women face for undergoing it. There’s abortion counselor Emily Letts, who filmed her own abortion procedure in order to show how straightforward and not-scary the experience was. After not being able to find any accounts of the days preceding an abortion, Jenny Kutner, an assistant editor at Salon, wrote a piece entitled “I’m having an abortion this weekend” after becoming pregnant with a baby she was not ready for.

On the popular culture side of things, this summer’s Obvious Child portrayed an abortion not as a shameful decision (or as a conflicted one leading to a last minute change of heart), but rather almost as a non-decision.

“While other films that touch on abortion conspire to neutralize a woman’s choice, or else punish her for it, Obvious Child never dwells on Donna’s decision,” writes Slate’s Amanda Hess. "Instead, it plays with all the other choices inherent in the abortion decision — like how much to involve the man in the choice, how to tell your mom, and how to talk about it publicly — and it does it all with humor and poignancy without getting glib.”

Davis’ contribution to the abortion experience discussion is an important one because of her status as a well-known politician running in a major gubernatorial race. She joins Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Nevada state representative Lucy Flores, who have also discussed their abortions. Including the experience in her highly anticipated memoir makes Davis’ the highest profile testimonial from a politician to date. That her account was similarly open in the ways Kutner’s was in Salon was also remarkable.

Reading Davis’ story was also critical because it underlined a point I hadn’t considered at length in the wake of the move toward abortion destigmatization: Abortion signifies different things to different women, and all of these meanings are equally valid. One doesn’t have to look further than Davis, Speier, and Flores for examples. For Davis, abortion was a tragedy to end the suffering of a very much desired baby. Speier needed an abortion to save her life. Flores had an abortion at age 16 because she simply was not ready to have a baby, and she has said publicly that she does not regret her choice.

I’ve had discussions with friends about the hypothetical what-if of an undesired pregnancy. One thinks she would have an abortion, but it would be a sad decision that would likely haunt her in the long-term. Another said her reaction to seeing a positive on a pregnancy test would be, “Get it out of me!” and wishes abortion was seen not as a sometimes necessary evil, but rather a commonplace procedure numerous women undergo in order to ensure the best possible circumstances for themselves and their families.

That pro-choice women today get to be part of a conversation about abortion that has room for a total diversity of perspectives is exciting. And seeing politicians like Wendy Davis are weighing in is hopefully an indication a more progressive mindset among political influencers will follow.