Pro-choice advocates around the country cheered Wednesday, as Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell withdrew support for a pre-abortion sonogram bill. The bill had risen to national attention, even earning a spot on The Daily Show. Critics focused on a particularly disturbing detail of the measure—most women having abortions have them early in the pregnancy, too early for the usual "jelly on the belly" ultrasound. So the bill mandated transvaginal sonograms, in which a probe would be stuck inside a woman's vagina and she would be offered a chance to see the fetus before she could terminate the pregnancy. "During the entire wand-forcibly-inserted-in-your-most-private-area experience, you still have complete and total control over which way your head is turned," The Daily Show's Jon Stewart told his guests. The focus from national media, social media, and bloggers all likely helped to force McDonnell into changing his position.
At the same time many protested the Virginia effort, Texas this month began implementing its version of the sonogram bill. In the Lone Star State, transvaginal sonograms are already a reality. (For a comparison of the bills, see my write-up here.) In examining the pro-choice victory, it's worth noting that around this time last year, the very similar bill sped through the Texas Legislature, and the chorus of liberal voices around the country—so loud this week—were a whole lot quieter.
Of course activists and those focused on pro-choice issues paid attention to the Lone Star measure and sounded warning bells. But why didn't the Texas fight, either when the bill was passed last year or implemented this month, receive the level of national attention that Virginia did over the past couple weeks?
Texas Democrats, after all, did their best to put up a fight and make a good show for the media covering the legislative debate. One delegate stood armed with a vaginal probe, trying to detail just how invasive the procedure would be. Despite being outnumbered two-to-one in the Texas House, Democrats threw a slew of points of order at the measure until one finally delayed the bill. When everyone returned to restart the debate, Democrats came up with amendment after amendment, including an attention-getter that allowed an unmarried woman who decided against an abortion to get a court order requiring the man who get her pregnant to undergo a vasectomy (assuming he had fathered at least two other children out of wedlock with different women.) On its second time around, the Texas House debated the measure for seven hours. It ultimately passed and eventually then was signed by Governor Rick Perry in a big ceremony. Perry had given the bill priority status during the session by naming it an emergency item.
Despite their efforts, state Democrats hardly got much national attention. When I searched for "Texas sonograms" while the Texas Legislature was in session last year, the publications database Lexis Nexis returned more than 400 articles. But almost all of them were from state newspapers or the Associated Press. Hardly a scientific study, but illustrative nonetheless. And let's not forget, the Texas governor who pushed the measure spent months running for president. His track record on transvaginal sonograms barely came up.
Texas is fairly predictable, and the passage of the sonogram bill felt, from the outset, somewhat inevitable. But that shouldn't account for a lack of outrage.
On the other extreme are pockets of severe disengagement. Border communities and poor, minority neighborhoods in big cities have especially low registration and turnout rates. Six of the seven precincts in Presidio County—one of the poorest counties in the nation—had fewer than half of the registered voters come to the polls in 2008. One barely topped 23 percent.
Even in Travis County, which frequently posts the highest urban turnout in the state, there is a stark contrast. The more affluent sectors of Austin largely vote, and the historically black and brown East Side largely don’t.
Huge swaths of the population in Texas are alienated from the political process—and often those populations have important needs. Almost 17 percent of Texans live below the poverty line. The sonogram bill is just one example of a measure that will disproportionately impact the poor, since, after all, wealthy folk can always travel out of state to get an abortion. There's also the stringent voter ID law currently tied up in courts. There are the funding cuts to programs disproportionately affecting low income residents (no more state-funded all day pre-K in Texas). While state lawmakers were requiring women get sonograms for abortion, they also cut funds for low-income women's healthcare by 66 percent
There are of course a ton of reasons why Virginia's sonogram bill blew up and Texas' did not. But it's hard not to think that for many, Texas winds up getting written off as a state where extreme stuff just happens without much recourse. The trouble is, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Extreme stuff happens because so many are disengaged from the process, and they're disengaged from the process because there's little sense that anything can change. In the case of the sonogram bill, it's unlikely national outrage would have much of an impact on the fate of the bill. (Rick Perry is hardly known for backing down on hot-button issues.) However, national attention can help give voice to those looking to register frustration—a step that might lead to voting or political involvement.
In the meantime, all those concerned about what might happen to women in Virginia if the sonogram bill had gone through don't have to wonder about the impact. They can always come to Texas, where it's law.