A May 2021 rally for abortion access in Austin, Texas, as photographed by the author. (Abby Springs)

The People’s Filibuster

Content warning: This piece contains mention of rape.

When State Senator Wendy Davis arrived at the Texas Capitol on a sweltering summer day in 2013, she laced up the same bright-pink sneakers she wore running the streets of her Fort Worth neighborhood. But on that day, Davis was racing a different kind of marathon — a 13-hour filibuster to stop one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the nation.

Senate Bill 5, authored by Sen. Glenn Hegar, would ban abortion after twenty weeks post-fertilization and cut off millions of Texans from life-saving health care. Putting medically unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics, the bill was the latest in a contemptible history of anti-choice TRAP laws, designed to shut down abortion access under the façade of “protecting women’s health.” But the real intent — punishing women and eliminating their reproductive rights — was clearly apparent to Texans across the state at risk of losing their freedom to choose.

The day the bill was set for debate in committee, abortion advocates traveled miles across Texas to share their stories and testify against the anti-abortion bill, some waiting at the Texas Capitol for nearly twenty hours. But at around 1 in the morning, the chair of the committee shut down the testimony with hundreds still waiting to speak. His excuse? That the stories had become “repetitive.”

With the bill headed to the Senate floor on the final day of the special session, it was clear the Republican-controlled legislature had the support to pass it — if they could bring it to a vote. With abortion rights for millions of Texans hanging in the balance, Wendy Davis prepared to make one last stand.

A filibuster in the Texas Senate poses a physical and rhetorical challenge for the Senator speaking on the bill. She must stand for the entire speech without eating, drinking, using the restroom, sitting, or leaning for support, and she can’t go off-topic from the subject of the bill, even for a minute. If she deviates from the rules, she gets a strike; three strikes, and she’s out. There’s no room for error — if she fails before the clock reaches midnight, the bill can be put up for a vote.

But despite the challenge posed by the half-day speech, Wendy Davis had no trouble finding the words to say that day — because the most effective ones weren’t her own. With the Senate gallery packed with Texans shut out of the process days before, Davis announced that she “thought it particularly appropriate today to use the opportunity with this microphone in my hand to give voice to the people who were not able to provide their voices as part of that testimony.”

State Senator Wendy Davis (and her electric pink sneakers), hours into her 13-hour filibuster. (Eric Gay, AP)

Through Wendy Davis’s lips, Amy from San Antonio told lawmakers how proud she was of her father, who needed a Kevlar vest and FBI security to perform abortions in South Texas. Erica spoke about her friend’s older sister, who was raped and forced to carry the fetus to term before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. Dale, whose wife underwent an illegal abortion that almost took her life, pleaded for the Texas Senate to understand the devastating consequences of an abortion ban. Carole, who terminated a wanted, unviable pregnancy after twenty weeks shared her trauma before legislators refusing to acknowledge her pain, and in her anguish, Wendy Davis wept too.

But still she held strong — the filibuster was only halfway over. Armed with over 13,000 testimonies and invigorated by the stream of abortion supporters filling the halls of the Capitol, her focus remained unshaken. But as midnight drew closer, Davis’s anti-abortion opponents looked for every opportunity to shut her down, just as they had silenced hundreds of women fighting for their freedom just days earlier.

First, a strike against discussion of Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health budget. When a Texas Senator helped Davis put on a back brace, another strike came down. And finally, two hours before midnight, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst issued a fatal blow to Davis’s filibuster, because she had mentioned the consequences of an anti-abortion sonogram bill passed two years earlier — an ostensibly “unrelated” issue. The Senate could proceed to a vote on the bill, with Wendy Davis’s voice suppressed by men who didn’t want to hear it.

The crowd watched Democrats try to stall the vote with procedural maneuvers, but minutes before midnight, the filibuster reached a breaking point. As Republicans prepared to call for a vote, Senator Leticia Van de Putte rose to address the chamber with a furious question: “At what point must a female Senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

All of a sudden, advocates watching from the gallery erupted with yells and cheers, a thunderous protest that Wendy Davis described as the “most beautiful demonstration of what it means to live and participate in a democracy.” Defying attempts from Republicans and Capitol police to quiet the roar, Texans drowned out the vote for the day’s last fifteen minutes as Davis and her Democratic colleagues waved victory signs from the Senate floor. Their voices would be silenced no longer.

Wendy Davis stood on the floor of the Texas Senate for thirteen hours. But in the end, the filibuster never belonged to her. In her speech, she gave a platform to Texans endangered by the abortion ban, who had already seen the consequences of reproductive injustice, and who were shut out of the process by the same legislators restricting their freedom to choose. And when the clock struck midnight, it wasn’t Davis who killed SB 5 — it was the collective protest of abortion advocates, moved to action by the very stories that Davis amplified.

The celebration that summer didn’t last long; a few weeks later, the bill passed in a second special session called to push through the ban. However, thanks to efforts by Davis and pro-choice advocates, the law was overturned by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision that upheld the constitutional right to abortion and overturned similar abortion restrictions across the nation. And yet, efforts to restrict abortion access in Texas have grown even more draconian and restrictive. The 2013 law prohibited abortion after twenty weeks. The law that went into effect in Texas last month bans it after six — before most women even know that they’re pregnant.

In 2013, I was a twelve-year-old girl growing up in Dallas, just starting to menstruate as advocates at the Texas Capitol fought to defend my bodily autonomy. Today, twelve-year-old girls in Texas, victims of rape or incest, can be forced to give birth if they don’t have an abortion before they’re six weeks pregnant. But there was no filibuster this time around — when the law passed in May, few outside of my state even knew that Texas was enacting the most restrictive abortion law in the nation.

For the entirety of the 140-day Texas legislative session, abortion advocates worked tirelessly to organize against the law. But no one heard them sound the alarm — neither The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, nor MSNBC published a single news article focused on the bill until it was signed into law. And no member of Democratic leadership posted online about abortion access until September, including many members of Texas’s own congressional delegation.

As I joined hundreds of thousands of people across the nation last month to march against the new law, Texans were already driving hours out of state to access life-saving care, while others weren’t able to make the journey at all. What might have been different if the nation listened, as Davis and her allies had, to the calls from advocates on the ground?

Wendy Davis’s filibuster wasn’t a typical speech — few speechwriters will ever have to prepare 13-hour remarks. But for anyone who steps up to a microphone, literally or otherwise, it’s a shining example of uplifting the voices of those most impacted by an issue to move your audience to action. When Wendy Davis gave a platform to those marginalized by the abortion ban, she inspired a movement that brought national visibility to the fight for abortion in the Lone Star State. She encouraged Texans across the state to join the pro-choice movement, motivating young Texas women just like me to engage in the political process. And through the power of that movement, she inspired a united, grassroots protest that killed one bill and fights on today.

Republicans in states from Florida to Idaho are already planning copycat bills to restrict abortion access for millions more. We have the opportunity now to uplift communities still struggling under the reality of reproductive subjugation — often with few paying attention. It’s time to listen to activists on the ground, amplify their voices when speaking up about abortion access, and give your support to those living in states where reproductive rights are under fierce attack.

When Wendy Davis delivered the People’s Filibuster, she “fought that day for women, and men who love them, whose voices had been cut out of the process … to give voice to the people who felt like they’d not been heard.” Today, it’s on us to do the same.

Donate to Texas abortion funds here.

— Abby Springs (WWW Intern)

Eight years after Wendy Davis’s filibuster, activists continued the march for reproductive justice in Texas. (Abby Springs)

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Read Wendy Davis’s 2013 filibuster in its entirety here.

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A progressive communications-strategy firm led by former Clinton, Obama, and Biden Administration speechwriters.

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