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Pro-choice Activist Wendy Davis Speaks at BU

“Use your voices to make change,” former Texas state senator urges

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Wendy Davis, a former Texas Democratic state senator, spoke Wednesday at the BU Medical Campus, where she set the record straight about her famous 11-hour filibuster to block an anti-abortion bill in her home state: she wasn’t the one who pushed a vote on the bill past the midnight deadline.

Instead, she said, it was the sustained cheering of the audience in the senate chamber that derailed a vote that night in 2013, after her colleague Leticia Van de Putte had come to her aid at 11:45 p.m. and pressed the question: “At what point is a woman’s voice, or her raised hand, to be recognized over those of her male colleagues in the room?”

“It was not me who carried the filibuster successfully over the midnight deadline. It was those folks who showed up,” said Davis. “They rose and they screamed, literally using their voices until they were able to get that bill past the midnight deadline….They left a mark that continues to this day, with people who now are more and more active in reproductive rights and willing to share their own stories and use their voices.”

Davis, the latest speaker in the School of Public Health Dean’s Seminar Series on Contemporary Issues in Public Health, appealed to the crowd of faculty, staff, and students to tap their personal passions to influence policy. Her visit—just two days before today’s 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v Wade decision—comes as the court prepares to hear its first abortion rights case in nine years—one that stems from the eventual passage of the bill that Davis’ filibuster delayed.

Later this year, the high court will hear Whole Woman’s Health v Cole, which contests state-imposed barriers to abortion access in Texas. Pro-choice advocates insist that the state laws at issue—requiring that doctors have local hospital admitting privileges and that clinics meet surgical-center operating standards—do not make abortions safer and will substantially limit access to the procedure. In Texas, the number of abortion clinics already has dropped from 41 to 17 since 2012.

Davis told the audience that she is optimistic that the Supreme Court will not undercut Roe v Wade, in part because she believes that advocates have succeeded in making the case personal. She and dozens of other women who have had abortions have submitted “friend-of-the-court” briefs, telling their own stories, she said, in the hope that the justices will “not be able to make this opinion in a vacuum, in the abstract…but instead see this through the lens of real people.”

Davis said she decided to share her own abortion story in order to help “push back against the idea that Justice (Anthony) Kennedy actually expressed in a prior opinion, about women who regret their abortions,” she said. “Most women do not regret their abortions, so we wanted to make sure that he understood our personal experiences behind that. When we find ourselves working on issues that are difficult, making sure that we bring our personal experiences forward is a tremendously important part of how we effectuate those changes that we want to see.”

Davis disclosed in her 2014 memoir, Forgetting to Be Afraid, that she terminated a pregnancy in the 1990s after discovering that the fetus had a severe brain abnormality.

She focused her BU talk, which was notably upbeat, around the theme of shoes, mentioning the memorable pink sneakers she wore during her filibuster. She showed pictures of the 1954 Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, noting that Warren managed to convince eight other white men to join him in the Brown v Board of Education decision, which called for desegregating the nation’s schools.

Warren, she said, was a role model “for the importance of what it means to consider the experiences of other people and to step into their shoes.”

Davis credited her mother and her maternal grandmother for teaching her resilience in the face of adversity. Her grandparents, who married in their teens and raised 14 children, were tenant farmers. Her mother worked long days at an ice cream and dairy restaurant to support her four children. Davis had a daughter at age 19, and she raised her alone after a divorce. She said that community college and a nearby Planned Parenthood clinic saved her from repeating her mother’s narrative.

“Had it not been for that clinic, had it not been for the contraceptive care that I received there, I have no doubt that I likely would have had a second unplanned pregnancy,” Davis said, “and it would have completely derailed my opportunity to create a better life for myself and my daughter.” Davis was able to go on to Harvard Law School.

“So,” she continued, “you probably understand now why the two filibusters that I conducted in the Texas Senate—the first to try to stop public education funding cuts there, and the second to try to stop an assault on reproductive rights in our state—were so very personal and so very important to me.” She paused, scanning the audience.

“So what about you?” she asked.

Since losing a bid for the Texas governorship in 2014 after a bruising campaign that saw her criticized for distorting some details of her struggle-to-success biography, Davis has been traveling the country, speaking about women’s reproductive rights, gender equality, and the importance of voting, especially among young people.

She told her BU audience that she was struck by the “incredible awareness and incredible compassion for others” among millennials, mentioning young people active in the Black Lives Matter movement. She cited a recent poll showing that 92 percent of young adults want to have a positive effect on the world.

“That is very unique to your generation,” said the 52-year-old Davis. “I wish I could say it was true of mine when I was your age, but it simply wasn’t.”

But she expressed concern that young people are not turning out to vote. In 2012, the turnout among voters 18 to 29 was below 50 percent. In 2014, only about 20 percent of millennial voters voted—a far lower percentage than among older voters.

The voices of older voters “tend to be disproportionately recognized in the political arena,” she said, “and as a consequence of that, you hear candidates speaking to issues that are representative perhaps of older folks’ concerns.”

She noted that projections show that millennials will make up 40 percent of the nation’s eligible voters by 2020.

“Imagine what we might see if there was an incredible turnout…in terms of what politicians might begin to feel they’re going to be held accountable to, and what we might hear them speak to,” she said, looking out at the rows of students in the audience.

“You, of course, do have the power to change the world.”

Watch Wendy Davis’ speech, Walking and Talking: Using Your Feet and Your Vote to Change the World, here.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Pro-choice Activist Wendy Davis Speaks at BU

  • Lauren on 01.22.2016 at 11:22 am

    What an inspiring individual! As an active millennial voter, I agree with Wendy Davis completely. I see so many of my millennial peers, representing progressive views and reflecting a desire to positively impact their communities.

    It can be easy to become disillusioned with politics in this current state of affairs. Politicians fight each other with a fierce stubbornness based on who is a Republican versus who is a Democrat or who is establishment versus who is not, rather than communicate for the greater good. Ironically though, I believe that the only way this can change is through millennials believing enough to vote and, also, to become politically engaged through their profession or through volunteerism.

    Thanks for advocating that our voices do matter, Wendy Davis.

  • Brennan on 01.22.2016 at 2:15 pm

    HOW DID I MISS THIS?!?!

  • KC on 01.22.2016 at 2:40 pm

    I wished I knew she was coming to BU. I check the Calendar regularly.

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