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The Politics Of Abortion In Texas


We're going to focus now a bit more on the law and politics of abortion in Texas. Early this morning, legislators there revived an effort to restrict access to abortion in that state. The bill would ban most abortions after 20 weeks. It would also place new tough standards on existing clinics.

It's set to come before the full Texas House next week. The legislation earned national attention when Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis delivered an 11 hour filibuster in an attempt - a successful attempt, at that time, to block the bill. And in a rally at the state house earlier this week, she told supporters the momentum was still on their side.


STATE SENATOR WENDY DAVIS: Now I know a great number of us have felt discouraged about the current state of affairs here. Some of us have felt mad. Today is different, though. Don't you feel it? We feel hope.

HEADLEE: Joining us to talk about the state and national implications of the Texas abortion battle is Wayne Slater. He's the senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. Also with us, Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome to you both.

WAYNE SLATER: Great to be with you.

JIM HENSON: You're welcome. Good to be here.

HEADLEE: Professor Henson, let me begin with you. Tell us briefly, does this law that's under debate in Texas - could it affect any issues beyond abortion, specifically?

HENSON: Well, there's discussion about two dimensions of that. One, whether the requirements for an ambulatory clinic may reach into other areas of medicine, and then of course there - and medical practice. And then there's the broader context of these laws, that is there - you know, several states, in the range of a dozen or so, have implemented similar clusters of measures, and at least four of those, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia and Idaho, have in one way or another been enjoined by courts.

So there's both the possible impact on medical practice in the state and its impact, not just directly on closing facilities that offer the abortion procedure, but also the broader question of whether it reaches into other areas of medical practice.

HEADLEE: Wayne Slater, you know, Governor Perry called the state legislature into special session, more than one now, to consider this bill. What's the rush? I mean, he's been in office for a very long time. Conservative is still a - I mean, Texas is still a basically conservative state. Why is he in a rush to get it passed?

SLATER: It is a conservative state. The Republicans dominate the House and Senate. In fact, there are no Democrat statewide officeholders in Texas - haven't been anybody elected in the Democratic party statewide since 1994, so the Republicans are in charge. Rick Perry faces the possibility of running for reelection to a fourth full term as governor next year.

The guess is he probably won't, but he does intend to look seriously at another run for president. He wanted this issue, as a strong socially - social conservative issue, to appeal to a constituency in places like Iowa and in Florida and South Carolina as he prepares to run again for president.

HEADLEE: So Professor Henson, you've, I understand, done some polling about abortion in Texas. How does the polls there match up with national opinion on abortion issues?

HENSON: Well, surprisingly, as conservative as Texas is, it's pretty close. I mean, what you see is a slightly more conservative bend overall, but public opinion is very closely divided. In, you know, three or four years of polling on a standard item, what we find is that it fluctuates with just one or two percent edge on the more restrictive end of the question.

That is there's a - you know, about 47 percent of Texans, give or take, given the poll, would favor either completely restricting Texas - access to abortion or restricting it only to cases of rape - rape, incest or threat to the health of the woman. You break that down, of course, and the dynamic here - the partisan dynamic Wayne refers to really takes over: much more restrictive views among Republicans, particularly Republican men, particularly conservatives and their overlapping Tea Party constituents.

HEADLEE: Well, we heard a comment from state Senator Wendy Davis earlier. Let's play a comment Republican Governor Rick Perry said. This is his response at the National Right to Life Convention a few days after the filibuster.


RICK PERRY: She was a teenage mother herself. It's just unfortunate that she hasn't learned from her own example, that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.


HEADLEE: So, Wayne Slater, if this is a battle between Wendy Davis and Rick Perry as national figures, who's winning?

SLATER: They're both doing well. I think there's one poll out that suggests that this whole donnybrook in Texas has helped Rick Perry with his conservative flank, the right flank, and has also created an environment where people who never heard of Wendy Davis before, even here in Texas, know who she is. People want her to run for governor. There are people who think she ought to run for president some day, which I guess could happen.

Look, this is a remarkable thing, but here in Texas, this is a conservative state, and Democrats who think the state's going to turn blue next year are probably whistling "Dixie" in Dixie. And it's probably going to take longer than that. But the Wendy Davis filibuster and the subsequent fight, I think, has the potential to invigorate, say, suburban women, who often are Republicans, who are moderates, a rising constituency of Latinas who are more liberal than their parents. And so you wonder if this, in Texas and across the country, will generate interest and create enthusiasm among voters that will only be good for Democrats.

HEADLEE: Well, let me bring that to you, then, Professor Henson. If Rick Perry is pushing this issue because he's - he wants to make a national figure for himself, but the national numbers show that it could be a mistake. It could be a risk to push further to the right on social issues like abortion. What do you think? Does this help him or hurt him outside of Texas?

HENSON: Well, I think in the short term - short and medium term, honestly, it can only really help him. He's not talking about an overall audience. He's looking at Republican primary voters, and he's looking at, in a sense, rebuilding his standing among conservatives. And this is a very - this is a traditional Rick Perry play, that is, he clings to these social issues when the opportunities present themselves.

He goes at it hard and it provides him a little money in the bank for issues that he's frankly not that, you know, dead conservative on, issues like immigration, where he is a shade more moderate than somebody like his kind of newest competitor for authority in the state, Ted Cruz.

But if you think about Rick Perry's last presidential run, the critical thing here is rehabilitation. I've been joking, I think it's sort of like a relationship. He needs to create new memories after a couple of - a rough couple of dates.

HEADLEE: After that oops. Well, let me end with this, Wayne Slater, because we have seen, especially recently in Alabama, restrictive laws like this get overturned by the courts. Politically speaking, if the bill is passed and Rick Perry signs it in Texas and it's later overturned, does that then ruin it as political capital?

SLATER: Absolutely not. It can be overturned. Every state legislator who've - on the right who have conservative constituents and voters in their districts are going to be able to go home and say, I voted the right way on this, whatever happens in the future.

And in the event that this or portions of it are overturned in the future, Rick Perry in his reelection campaign, which might or might not happen; in his presidential bid, which is almost certainly to happen at least for a while, will be able to say, I fought the good fight and those terrible judges tried to take it away. We need strong conservative people in the White House.

HEADLEE: And I misspoke. The law in Alabama was blocked instead of overturned. We only have about 30 seconds left, Professor Henson, but I wonder if you agree.

HENSON: Well, I do. I think that conservative voters, especially right now, want to fight the good fight. And Rick Perry, in particular, has been very good at using the federal government, the courts, and above all, President Obama as a foil. And if they go, they fight the good fight, Rick Perry and the conservatives behind him - behind them will embrace being overturned by the court.

HEADLEE: That's Jim Henson. He directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, and also Wayne Slater, senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News. They both joined us from Austin, Texas. Thanks, you guys.

SLATER: Great to be with you.

HENSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.