The XX Factor

Four Ways to Interpret Rick Perry’s Remarks About Wendy Davis

Rick Perry has something to tell you.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rick Perry has a message for the state of Texas and for the country about Wendy Davis. We’re not entirely sure what that message is.

In a speech to the National Right to Life conference earlier Thursday, Perry rebuked Davis for her epic filibuster of a new, highly restrictive abortion law he’s been trying to pass (and will likely eventually succeed in passing) in Texas. Depending on your interpretation, he may also have been attempting to passively aggressively slut-shame her in front of an audience of mostly religious Christians. Here’s exactly what Perry said along with video of his remarks:

Who are we to say that children born in the worst of circumstances can’t grow to live successful lives? In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of a single woman, she was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate. It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.

On Tuesday, Davis attracted enormous amounts of national attention to a sweeping measure that would have shut down 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics and banned abortion in Texas after 20 weeks. Texas Republicans had been trying to sneak the legislation through a special session of the state legislature without attracting too much national media attention. That failed, but now Perry has called for another special session during which the law will probably pass, albeit with heightened national scrutiny.

In this light, Perry’s remarks can be viewed in one of four different ways.

Benign, if incoherent, pro-life argument: Oh, all Perry was saying is that if you’ve made the choice to give birth under difficult circumstances like Wendy Davis and her mother did, then you should be pro-life. As a Slate editor put it in an email thread, he was saying, “it’s too bad that her experiences didn’t teach her that every life has value.” I personally don’t see why that would lead you to oppose abortion, but then again I don’t think that believing that human life has value and being pro-choice are contradictory positions.

Not so benign, incoherent pro-life argument: Wait, so he’s telling Wendy Davis what she should think because of how he feels about her personal life experience? He is also doing this to every teen mother, and if you think about it, every woman in the state.

Cynical, political slut-shaming: In this interpretation, he specifically mentioned a political opponent’s teen motherhood in order to inform the world of that fact and subtly shame her in front of a deeply religious audience. Basically, a whole lot of words to say, “Hey, look, former teen mom!” in order to score a cheap political point on a formidable adversary.

Cynical, political slut-shaming and genuine slut-shaming: Not only was Perry calling Davis out as a teen mom to score a political point, he also actually believes in his heart that such slut-shaming is warranted.

Although most of us will never really understand what Rick Perry is saying, my personal best guess lies somewhere between the second and third options: Perry was telling Davis and the women of Texas what they should think, with the potential bonus effect of reminding people about her “sordid” past. Good point.

Update, July 27, 2013: Video was added to this post.