the national interest

The Real Problem With Rick Perry’s Comments About Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, left, who tries to filibuster an abortion bill, reacts as time expires, Tuesday, June 26, 2013, in Austin, Texas. Amid the deafening roar of abortion rights supporters, Texas Republicans huddled around the Senate podium to pass new abortion restrictions, but whether the vote was cast before or after midnight is in dispute. If signed into law, the measures would close almost every abortion clinic in Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Photo: Eric Gay/AP/Corbis

If you’re a pro-choice liberal like me, Wendy Davis is a hero, and Rick Perry is one of the most cartoonishly villainous public figures in America. And so, like other pro-choice liberals, I recoiled when I read Perry’s attack on Davis:


In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of a single woman, she was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate. It is 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.

The immediate liberal reaction is that Perry was “attack[ing] her motives and her experiences,” or “dismissing her as an unwed, teen mother.” But Perry is not attacking Davis here. Perry is pointing to her life as a success. His comments are tantamount to a liberal arguing that Ted Cruz’s family history shows why we need more immigration.

Now, to be sure, Davis would respond that giving birth was her choice, and ought to remain her choice. I agree. But this merely pushes the debate back to irreconcilable moral premises. The abortion debate, at its root, pits differing ideas on the fundamental question of what is a human life. Perry’s side thinks that sperm plus egg equals human life. My side thinks the fertilized egg does not approach human status until much later in the process, which means the mother’s prerogative supercedes any rights it has.

There’s no real resolution to this dispute. Nobody even makes much of an effort to resolve it. Both sides advance arguments that only make sense if you already accept their premise about what a human life is. That’s what Perry’s doing here. He’s saying we should force women to give birth even when they don’t want to, because babies born in bad circumstances can be happy anyway. That isn’t an acceptable burden to place on women, in my opinion, but it surely is if you think abortion is murder.

Likewise, liberals often call conservatives hypocritical for wanting to shrink government while expanding government’s power to ban abortion. Except, if you think abortion is murder, then banning abortion is the sort of thing government ought to be able to do, even if it does very little overall. “Stopping murder” is one function of government that even Grover Norquist would endorse. Anti-abortion conservatives aren’t hypocritical, they’re (from the pro-choice standpoint) wrong about what a murder is.

I realize a plea for understanding sounds odd coming from me, not being known for gentleness. I suppose I find certain bedrock conservative beliefs, like that the poor are genetically inferior or it’s okay for people to be denied access to basic medical care, to be barbaric and often simply premised on obvious mistakes. Having a different idea about when human life begins strikes me as the ultimate example of an issue where reasonable people can disagree.

Rick Perry Versus Wendy Davis