The Policy and the Politics of the Abortion Debate

Young attendees, wearing the blue of anti-abortion protesters, attend demonstrations at the Texas State Capitol on the first day of the second legislative session, July 1, 2013.
Young attendees, wearing the blue of anti-abortion protesters, attend demonstrations at the Texas State Capitol on the first day of the second legislative session, July 1, 2013.

Activists on both sides of the abortion fight put the most amazing things in the hands of children. Maybe we should be passing parenting laws.

The Texas Capitol, quiet for most of the year, has been full of protesters and demonstrators off and on for the last month as lawmakers consider abortion legislation.

Like all activists and partisans, they bring their props with them, including, in some cases, props who are related to them: kids. Some have learned the lessons about pictures saying more than words, and how the cameras always seem to find the strangest and most outlandish people and signs and sights in crowds that are otherwise as unremarkable as the people at the neighborhood grocery store.

Children show up at all sorts of functions, even political ones. But even after all the years and all the fights, they can be an uncomfortable presence at a rally on this subject.

It’s like seeing a second grader sitting next to an adult at an R-rated movie. It’s the thing that made some people squeamish when the governor wanted HPV vaccines for sixth graders to guard against sexually transmitted disease.

 

The subject itself is arguably for mature audiences, though it’s obvious that many parents think this is a proper introduction to civics for their own children — a translation of values into action that children need to learn. And it’s up to them, probably, to decide whether the kids ought to be holding up signs and what is in and out of bounds.

Several children have held up signs saying (in a more profane way than this) that if they wanted the government in their business, they would have sex with government officials. On the other side were signs, also in small hands, with pictures of aborted fetuses and the slogan “abortion is murder.”

Golly.

There are topics just as political as abortion, like redistricting. Lawmakers get wrapped around the axle about it, but most people don’t care enough to pack up the kids, jump in the car, drive to Austin, stand in the heat and hold signs about the federal Voting Rights Act.

And there are issues that are just as emotional, as the state’s politicians found out on the 2012 campaign trail when they talked to parents about high-stakes standardized testing in schools. One wrong word on that can raise the voices of a town hall full of Texans.

Abortion periodically becomes a legislative issue and then slips into the background almost long enough for everyone to forget how potent it is. It combines politics and emotion in a way few issues do, putting lawmakers on the spot with their constituents and their colleagues — there is intense debate without changing minds, but with the knowledge that the votes they take will be scrutinized and consequential in the next elections.

It makes politicians nervous. But it also energizes supporters on both sides — the rare thing that raises the political fortunes of people as different as Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, and Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, at the same time. Detractors snarl, supporters purr. Politically, it works, if you’re talking about the partisans who groove on political fireworks.

The factions are like the Legislature itself, an institution with a split personality that toggles between sometimes difficult but policy-centered debates on things like water and the state budget and testing in schools, and politically driven wrangles on some of those same issues.

The abortion debate has a policy side — whether and when a fetus feels pain, whether and how abortion clinics are regulated, whether and how the state ought to regulate the doctors involved, and how all of those things affect the prevalence and availability of the procedure.

It’s got an emotional side, too — that’s the most visible part. Blue and orange T-shirts. Demonstrators inside and outside the Capitol. And all those signs and slogans.

That’s a way to get attention, to push the boundaries enough to attract notice without crossing the line so that what you’re trying to say is undone by how you’re saying it.

Like when a conversation about whether to become a parent turns to one about what kind of parent you have become.

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.