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Opinions | Like many Texas women, I had a safe, legal abortion. What happened to our state?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/20/2021 Ruth Pennebaker
a person standing in front of a building: At the state capitol in Austin, Jillian Dworin participates in a protest against the new abortion ban on Sept. 1, the day the law went into effect. © Jay Janner/AP At the state capitol in Austin, Jillian Dworin participates in a protest against the new abortion ban on Sept. 1, the day the law went into effect.

My husband is a Texan by birth and I’m a Texan by habit and stubbornness. In the summer of 1973, after three years in Florida, we moved back to Texas so I could go to law school and he to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. This was 48 years ago — a number that shocks me, since my memories of that time are still so vivid.

1973! Austin was a charming, laid-back college town of fewer than 300,000 with excellent barbecue, icy beer, cold swimming holes and great music. But the city and the state were changing, too, becoming more diverse and welcoming to women. The year before, Texas had ratified the federal Equal Rights Amendment, and Austin lawyer Sarah Weddington had successfully argued for a woman’s right to abortion in the Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court.

The law school faculty was almost exclusively male, but women made up a record 15 percent of my entering class. In this formal, intimidating world of large classrooms and imperious professors who taught — and terrified with — the Socratic method, women students often banded together for comfort and support. We read casebooks and class notes in small study groups and talked endlessly about our lives, this new world we had entered and the careers we wanted. We were feminists, and we were pro-choice, and most of us planned on futures our mothers never could have imagined.

That first year of law school, in January, exactly a year after Roe v. Wade was decided, I got pregnant unexpectedly. My husband and I knew we weren’t ready for a baby. We were newly married, young and immature. We didn’t have money or resources; we had gauzy dreams and ambitions. We drove a hundred miles to the nearest clinic, in San Antonio, where I got a safe and legal first-term abortion. Halfway home, sitting at a concrete picnic table in the courthouse square of a small Hill Country town, I cried while my husband hugged me and patted my shoulder.

Pro-choice never meant pro-abortion for me or anyone else I knew.

***

I am 71 now, and sometimes I almost don’t recognize myself in the mirror. It’s also hard to recognize the state and the city I have spent so much of my life in. In recent decades, Texas has been an economic juggernaut. Its population has grown to almost 30 million, and three of its cities — Houston, San Antonio and Dallas — now rank in the top 10 largest in the country. Texas’s image as a rural state belongs to the long-ago past and the movie screen; about 85 percent of its people live in cities. It’s no longer predominantly White, either.

Austin’s population is now about 1 million. The laid-back college town has become a metropolis with skyscrapers and towering construction cranes, teeming freeways and rising housing prices.

You would expect the politics of a more populated, diverse, urban and increasingly Democratic state to reflect the changing demographics. You would be wrong. Led by Greg Abbott, a calculating governor with the White House in his sights, and Dan Patrick, a lieutenant governor who once opined that grandparents’ death by covid-19 would be a worthy sacrifice for their descendants’ economy, the gerrymandered and Republican-dominated state legislature has busily passed one outrageous bill after another. From restricting voter rights to expanding gun-toting privileges to forbidding the teaching of history that might make White students question themselves or their forebears — some weeks, it’s been impossible to decide which new law is the most damaging and dangerous to public safety or democracy. “Can you believe what those idiots at the capitol have done now?” was a frequent conversation opener in Austin this summer. But now, with the draconian new state law that basically outlaws abortion and empowers private citizens to step up as vigilantes who can earn bounties, it’s hard to talk about anything else. “I hate this state! I want to get out!” is the latest local conversational gambit. The fire and the vehemence are striking; the speakers are invariably women.


Video: How other states may follow Texas’s restrictive abortion law (The Washington Post)

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As Roe and access to abortion have been gradually gutted over the decades, I’ve often wondered about the mostly male Republican Texas legislators’ ideas about women. Do they, like the incels and Internet trolls, hate women? Or are women’s lives and autonomy simply negligible to them — incidental damage as they pander to a far-right base, bearing glad tidings of abortion bounties and shuttered Planned Parenthood clinics?

The federal suit against Texas’s abortion law may fail. It’s still worthwhile.

Coast to coast in state legislatures bent on curtailing abortions, there has been an odd male squeamishness about women’s bodies. Remember the Florida Democratic legislator who cracked a joke 10 years ago about incorporating his wife’s uterus so the anti-regulation GOP wouldn’t mess with it? He was rebuked by his Republican colleagues for using that word — uterus! — which might be offensive to teenage pages. Sometimes I think women simply scare these men with our messy, unruly bodies — our blood, our bloating, our cramps, our pregnancies, our miscarriages, our abortions, our menopauses.

Do even the best, most empathic men truly understand? Do they know what women talk about, whisper about — our personal histories, our shame, our fears? Do they recognize how many decades women feel controlled by our own bodies — our worries about embarrassing ourselves during our menstrual cycles, our fears of unwanted pregnancies, our concerns about not being able to get pregnant when the time and circumstances are right?

Maybe empathic men know some of the same stories we do — of women’s parallel histories. But do these stories wrench their guts the same way they do mine? I think of my good friend who had been married 30 years before she dared tell her husband and children about the baby she gave up in her 20s. Of friends who had illegal abortions before Roe. Of a younger friend whose much-wanted pregnancy was terminated because her fetus was deformed and would have died at birth. Of friends who had abortions and never regretted it, of friends who still cry when they talk about their abortions, of friends who bore unwanted children and never recovered from it, of friends who were raped by strangers or family members.

Have Texas women — and other women — been too quiet about their own histories with abortion? Too quiet, too ashamed, too fearful of our privacy? Austin journalist Brenda Bell tells me that after the passage of Texas’s new abortion law (U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland is suing the state over it), some of her closest friends, women she has known for decades, have suddenly confided that they have had abortions. Maybe they have told their children and families; often they haven’t. “My fantasy has long been that every single one of us who have had an abortion would turn out in massive marches across the country,” Bell texted. “It would be a different kind of Me Too.”

Roe v. Wade is dead in Texas. The Supreme Court owes us an explanation.

I would march, too — and march in Texas, for God’s sakes. I’m rooted here. I’m tired of hearing people announce their moving plans. I’m not going to be chased out of my longtime home by a corps of craven politicians.

As the excellent Texas chronicler Mimi Swartz recently wrote, the current crop of gray Republican leadership in Texas lacks a quality she has always prized in the state — optimism. Texas has a “deeply rooted hopefulness that I have never seen or experienced to the same extent elsewhere,” she says. She’s right. Optimism has always been a necessity in Texas. You can feel that hopefulness in people who live here. You can see it in the spindly trees they plant in the hard ground, staked down so they won’t bend in the wind. You can see it on long drives on flat, barren West Texas roads, where churches and schools bear names like Hillside or even Mountain View just because there is a rise in the road. You can hear it this time of year, whenever one of us pokes a finger into the hot air and declares that yes, it’s cooler, and clearly, finally, autumn must have arrived. It helps to be hopeful to live in this hard, unforgiving land of rattlesnakes, cactus, blue northers and humorless political zealots.

Why I violated Texas’s extreme abortion ban

Maybe, if you’re a woman here, it also helps to be tough and a little crazy — like Molly Goodnight, the wife of a legendary Panhandle rancher who grew so lonely she sometimes talked to her chickens. And a sense of humor is always helpful for survival, as former governor Ann Richards and journalist Molly Ivins exemplified in their raucous lifetimes — especially if the chickens start talking back and running the state legislature.

Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, says Texas polls from June found men slightly against an automatic ban on abortion if Roe were overturned, with 48 percent opposed and 41 percent in support, while opposition was more lopsided among women: 58 percent opposed and 33 percent in support. Overall, 44 percent of Texans supported an abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy, with 46 percent in opposition. Differences in support for abortion rights are sharply partisan, Henson says, but polls over the years have shown that a majority of Texans do not want an outright ban. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that more that half of Texas voters, 55 percent, said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, including 51 percent of men and 61 percent of women.

However confusing the polls and forecasts may be, I doubt Texas politicians have any idea of the fury they have unleashed. And as any mother of my generation can tell you, the next generation isn’t nearly as polite or patient as mine has been — and good for them. They’re tougher and more optimistic, and they aren’t used to having their reproductive rights hijacked. They have no nostalgia for the past glories of the Lone Star State; they are concerned with its present and future. Time is on our daughters’ side. The grim, retrograde men leading Texas now are running out of it.

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