The Courage of Dawnna Dukes
State representative discredits claims that abortion leads to mental health problems
In a political context of increasing restrictions on reproductive health, women lawmakers have begun scrapping the script and sharing their own abortion stories, in an effort break the stigma of shame and silence regarding their personal medical decisions – in this case, a decision that three in 10 women have made. In 2011, during a debate on Planned Parenthood funding, in an impromptu speech on the House floor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier discussed her abortion. In July, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Nevada, Lucy Flores, acknowledged having had an abortion, while promoting a bill to improve sex education in public schools. And here in Texas, gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Wendy Davis – champion of the epic 11-hour filibuster to defeat the state's draconian abortion law, House Bill 2 – disclosed her own emotional experience in a recent tell-all memoir.
Last weekend, during a heated Texas Tribune Fest panel on women's health at UT-Austin, Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes joined the growing list of brazen women; while rejecting misinformation from a fellow panelist, Dukes revealed she had had an abortion. Also like Speier, Flores, and Davis, after her revelation, Dukes was swiftly and publicly shamed.
Dukes' unplanned admission was provoked by wild claims from her future legislative colleague, Molly White, a conservative Republican from Belton running unopposed in Texas House District 55. White asserted women who have undergone abortions are prone to drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide; she could speak from experience, she said, having had two abortions that were followed by depression and drug or alcohol abuse. (White's basic knowledge on this and other subjects appears limited; she could not pronounce "anesthetized"; she did not know how many abortion clinics existed in Texas prior to HB 2; and in a subsequent Facebook post on this episode, she referred to Dukes as "Deanna.")
White's claims of post-abortion consequences are repeatedly peddled by anti-choice advocates, and just as repeatedly discredited by major medical organizations (the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Cancer Society). Her sole qualification for public office appears to be that she's an ardent anti-choice activist – she previously served as a legislative director for Operation Outcry, a group dedicated to reversing Roe v. Wade, and founded nonprofit Women for Life International, an anti-abortion network actively opposing "feminist organizations" that promote the idea that sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. According to WLI, "Family planning, reproductive rights, and safe sex is the greatest hoax ever devised against women and families."
When Dukes sought to refute White's fear-mongering, White responded that women who hadn't experienced abortion could not truly understand or credibly argue on the subject (although plenty of the fiercest anti-choice legislators are men). Dukes, growing noticeably frustrated, finally declared, "To the world, I had an abortion" – and she described herself as proof that it's erroneous to assume women who have had abortions are unstable, psychologically damaged, or prone to addiction. Those who are, she continued, need counseling for reasons distinct from their decision to abort. Dukes' rebuttal of White's misinformation evoked applause and cheers from the audience.
Following the Saturday afternoon panel, Dukes told the Chronicle she had not planned to make the revelation – in fact, it was the first time she had made the news public. "My parents don't even know it," said Dukes. "It was never my intent to come out with it – but don't sit here [referring to White] and insult every single person who has had an abortion. ... To suggest women who had abortion end up with breast cancer or some psychological problem is just BS." Later, Dukes wrote on social media that the reasons for her abortion will remain private. "Folks have about as much right to know why as they have a right to know when/why you have a pap smear, rectal exam, or root-canal – none whatsoever," she posted.
That defiance didn't leave her unscathed. Stunningly, among other slanderous denunciations, and in lieu of privately conversing with his legislative colleague, state Sen. Bob Deuell – a leading supporter of abortion restrictions who was defeated in the GOP primary and will be stepping down in January – took to the comments section of a Texas Tribune article the next day to air his suspicions about Dukes: "Given her views and some comments she made yesterday and in the past, one might argue whether Dukes has suffered from her abortion ... Abortion is the taking of a human life."
Dukes firmly rejected Deuell's comments, writing: "your implied statement on my mental stability is an insult which implies a problem with your own. Were you offended that this woman would not back down or bow down to you? Those days are way gone." She continued, "I sure will not miss you in the legislature."
Deuell's comments – surely not the last in criticism of Dukes – reflect the ongoing intimidation and hostility women face when speaking of abortion (Flores received death threats, and Davis had the veracity of her story questioned), and these reflexive attacks represent one reason women often refrain from disclosing their experiences. Time will tell what additional backlash Dukes will endure; in the meantime, her honesty has been resonating in Austin and elsewhere. Dozens of comments on her personal Facebook page reflect overwhelming appreciation for her courage, in acting to resist the deep stigma imposed on women who make the personal choice of a legal medical procedure.