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SXSW: Wendy Davis and Donna Howard discuss how to respond to Texas’ restrictive abortion law

The panel took place right before the Texas Supreme Court shot down a challenge against Senate Bill 8.


Mariam Sharia


Posted on Mar 12, 2022   Updated on Mar 28, 2022, 2:05 pm CDT

On a windy Friday morning at the South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, former Texas state senator Wendy Davis sat down with Texas state Representative Donna Howard to talk about abortion.

Specifically, Senate Bill 8, or the “Heartbeat Bill” which prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, makes no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest, and deputizes private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps a person seeking an abortion after a fetal “heartbeat” has been detected in order to collect $10,000, plus any attorney’s fees.

As Howard explained, the bill’s language was cleverly, insidiously, crafted to ensure it didn’t rely on an actual heartbeat—none exists at six weeks—but rather cardiac activity, which often does.

Bounty hunters seeking those “aiding and abetting” don’t have to look too far. They can snitch on doctors, yes, but it’s far more convenient to rat out Uber drivers, receptionists, and childcare professionals.

If you’ve lived in Texas in the last six months, you don’t have the same constitutional protection every other person in the U.S. has under Roe v. Wade.

Wendy Davis knows this better than most. At 11:11am on June 25, 2013, just under four months before she announced her failed bid for governor (“I apologize for the fact that I was not successful in that race,” she told SXSW), the bill was called to the floor by the lieutenant governor and Davis held a 13-hour-long filibuster to block Senate Bill 5. 

A precursor to SB8, SB5 sought to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The law also sought to close every one of the 42 abortion clinics in the state under the guise of regulating the facilities to make them safer.

The rules of the filibuster are much different in Texas compared to the U.S. Senate, explained Davis.

“You have to occupy the floor yourself,” she said. “You can’t take turns with other senators. You must speak on the topic for the entirety of the time that you are filibustering. You may not have a drink of water or anything to eat or even a hard candy in your mouth. You cannot sit down. And you cannot lean on your desk. And, most importantly for me, you can’t leave the floor to use the bathroom. So knowing that you are going to start at 11:00am in the morning and go for 13 hours until after midnight means you’re in for a feat of physical endurance.

“But thankfully I wasn’t alone in any way shape or form,” Davis went on, explaining how her fellow Democratic senators had her back and how thousands of people showed up from across the state and stood in line for many hours to speak against the bill (most did not get the chance). It became known as the “People’s Filibuster” and its supporters caught the attention of people all over the country—a pivotal moment for Texas Democrats and pro-choice advocates.

Though SB5 was killed that night, it ultimately passed later on and succeeded in shutting down half of the abortion clinics in Texas. And it was all downhill from there. 

As Howard explained, the current law—draconian, pointlessly cruel, and profoundly callous—didn’t happen overnight. In the 2010 Texas House of Representatives election, all 150 seats were up for grabs. The GOP snagged a record 99 of them, leaving Democrats with 51 seats. Not even enough to quorum bust. 

There was a certain empowerment of those in control (old, white, male politicians) to come after reproductive rights and access. “Since then it has been session after session after session,” explained Howard. “And additional obstacles put in place… All done in the name of protecting women.”

Then came Trump. “That changed the rhetoric, changed the vitriol, changed what has become acceptable in our country.” Senate Bill 8 would never have made it to the house floor in a previous session, explained Howard. “It was so extreme.” 

Everyone assumed SB8 would be struck down in court. On Friday, a unanimous ruling from the Texas Supreme Court dealt a final blow to a federal lawsuit brought by abortion providers in the state hoping to halt enforcement of the law. “There is nothing left, this case is effectively over,” said Center for Reproductive Rights attorney Marc Hearron, a statement echoed in headlines across the web.

So here we are. “The Supreme Court has turned its back on us,” Davis quipped.

Both politicians believe Roe v. Wade will be overturned come June. What will the consequences of that be? Well, Texas already knows. We’ve been living in it for the last six months.

SB8 is a taste of a country in which Roe. v. Wade no longer exists. Texans seeking an abortion must leave the state, taking into account the cost of travel, childcare, missed wages, the emotional, physical, and financial traumas. Texans who want to be pregnant but can’t afford to be because of medical issues can’t seek help. People who already have at least one child are disproportionately affected, as are POC. (Texas’ maternal mortality rate is above the U.S. average, with Black women accounting for 31% of deaths.) 

For a state that claims to care about children, Texas has a veritable foster care crisis. The number of kids without a proper placement increased tenfold from 2020 to 2021. Texas also has high rates of uninsured children and child hunger, along with dismal funding for public education.

Davis said the best thing to do in response to the bill is to make some noise. “Getting involved and making sure that we decide who is representing us in the halls of power in our state capitols,” she said.

“We have a call to action here about people staying engaged and involved,” Howard added. “That day of the filibuster was phenomenal. We can’t do that every day, I get that. But at the very least, we can vote. But we can’t stop at the vote.”

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*First Published: Mar 12, 2022, 7:00 am CST