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Wendy Davis is learning the perils of campaigning on her personal biography.

Since The Dallas Morning News raised questions this month about whether she had fudged some items in her biography, Ms. Davis has been under attack by her Republican opponent for governor, Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, and everyone from Bristol Palin to Rush Limbaugh for omitting the fact that her second husband helped pay for her Harvard Law School education and that her two children mostly stayed in Texas while she was there.

The controversy has turned her underdog campaign to become Texas’s first Democratic governor in 20 years into a hotbed of second-guessing over her omissions and has prompted a debate over culturally charged questions about a woman’s balance of work, ambition and parenthood.

In a state with a booming economy but simmering problems with its public schools and water infrastructure and with high rates of poverty and people without health insurance, one of the central questions hanging over the race is how long, exactly, Ms. Davis lived in a trailer in Fort Worth as a single mother.

Supporters of Ms. Davis and some analysts of gender issues in politics said the scrutiny of her choices as a working wife and mother was something no male candidate would be subject to. Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who once worked for Ms. Davis, pointed out that when Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor of Chicago, he left his family behind in Washington so his children could finish school.

“And nobody ever said a thing about it,” she said. “Think about the number of women who put their husbands through school, and the wife is a self-sacrificing role model.”

Alice Tripp, 67, a mother, grandmother and longtime gun lobbyist in Austin who is supporting Mr. Abbott, said the issue was about honesty, not gender.

“I’m a gun lobbyist, a job seldom thought of as being a woman’s job,” she said. “My criticism of Wendy Davis has nothing to do with her gender or her age or anything. If you’re going to run for politics, you have to understand you’re going to be fact-checked. And you best not wander and embellish your own story.”

For at least some of the fallout, Ms. Davis had herself to blame.

She has been traveling the state and the country since her 11-hour filibuster at the Texas Capitol last year to block abortion restrictions, largely campaigning on her narrative of rising from a 19-year-old single mother in a trailer to a Harvard Law School graduate and a state senator. But her campaign has essentially acknowledged that she misstated certain details and omitted certain facts in her biography.

For instance, she has said in interviews and in testimony in a redistricting lawsuit involving her State Senate district that she was divorced by the time she was 19 and lived as a single mother in a trailer. Her campaign has since clarified that while she separated at 19 and lived in the trailer with her daughter, she filed for divorce at 20 and the divorce became final when she was 21.

Nor had she focused on the role of her second husband, Jeff Davis, whom she divorced after a nearly 17-year marriage. He told The Dallas Morning News that she left him the day after the final payment was made on the loan for Harvard. She has denied the claim. The Dallas newspaper also said he had won custody of their two children. Her campaign said the couple had joint custody.

In a letter released Tuesday, Ms. Davis’s daughters, who were 2 and 8 when Ms. Davis entered Harvard, issued full-throated defenses of her, saying that she was always a presence in their lives, even when away at law school, and that they had initially gone to Boston with her.

Amber Davis, 31, called the criticism of her mother “ludicrous.”                   

Ms. Davis in 1993 with one of her daughters at her Harvard Law School graduation. Davis Family

The issue has produced a freewheeling debate on social media and cable television that sometimes followed familiar partisan lines and sometimes crossed them.

A blog post by Ms. Palin, a daughter of the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, whose teenage pregnancy became a social media moment of its own during the Republican convention, criticized Ms. Davis’s parenting history and compared Ms. Davis unfavorably to her mother.

“Gosh, children are sooo inconvenient, huh?” Ms. Palin wrote. “I’m glad my mother didn’t put motherhood on the shelf when she was elected to City Council, then became our mayor, then governor.”

In a speech on Tuesday, Ms. Davis, who is 50, said the controversy was a result of political attacks by Republicans.

“These false attacks say more about my opponent’s character than they do about me,” she said before a crowd of supporters at a dinner sponsored by the Travis County Democratic Party. She added: “For those who have mangled the story of my life, either carelessly or purposely, know this. I never gave up custody of my children, I never lost custody of my children, and to say otherwise is an absolute lie.”

Some Republicans agreed that the issue reflected a double standard for female candidates.

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican consultant and president of the polling company WomanTrend, said, “They never ask the male candidates, how do you have all the time to play golf and have a girlfriend?”

When Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, was chosen as the Republican candidate for vice president, Ms. Conway said she remembered that commentators immediately began asking why she would accept the nomination with five children, including a baby with Down syndrome.

“If female voters conclude that a woman politician was a physically absent mother, they usually stop listening to the rest of your platform,” Ms. Conway said. “That’s a bridge too far. Your foremost responsibility is as a mother.”

Although gender roles have changed in the last few decades, with men shouldering more responsibility for raising children and women sharing more of the financial burden, traditional attitudes on parenting still hold sway for many voters, said W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“On the one hand, people are embracing more flexible views of gender; they’re much more open to flexible working and family arrangements,” Mr. Wilcox said. “But at the same time, there is a more residual, traditional orientation that suggests that moms are the primary caretakers. And most married moms would prefer to work part time or in the home. In a way that might color their view of the situation.”

The impact the debate will have on her campaign is uncertain. But some say it is a reminder that for all the changes in gender roles in American life, much remains unchanged.

Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that for male candidates, having a family was almost always an asset because it humanized them and served as a support system. But for women who are candidates, having a family can be a liability because, Ms. Carroll said, “the expectation is still that women are supposed to be the primary caregivers.”

Manny Fernandez reported from Houston, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.


Despite the best efforts of Wendy Davis, the Texas abortion bill is back. The Texas House has finally (this was the third attempt this year) approved new abortion restrictions, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, restricting the procedure to surgical centers, and requiring doctors performing abortions to have hospital-admitting privileges, the AP reports. Proponents say the new measures will keep women safe, but opponents say the real outcome of the bill will be the closure of the majority of the state’s abortion clinics—only five of Texas’ 36 licensed clinics are expected to be able to afford the upgrades required to pass as a “surgical center,” the El Paso Times reports.

The vote came after 10 hours of heated debate, as demonstrators from both sides descended on the Texas Capitol building. Supporters brought in baby shoes, while opponents carried coat hangers—a symbol of “back alley” abortions, the New York Times reports. Ultimately, the vote passed easily: 98 to 49 with only one Republican, Sarah Davis, opposing the new law, which she labelled unconstitutional. “I believe the bill as drafted will be a de facto ban on abortion,” she said. “No one wants to see abortions, it’s a terrible way to end a pregnancy, but it is a constitutionally protected right.” A formal vote on the bill will be held today, then it will move on to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it’s expected to pass, the AP reports.


Dr Kermit Gosnell began as a pillar of his community. Now, he’s a national disgrace. For years, officials knew of problems at his clinic but did nothing about them. Some say a new law passed in response to the scandal is putting patients at further risk.

Dr Kermit Gosnell is no longer a danger to others. He spends his days writing poetry, learning Spanish and jogging on the spot. At 72, he keeps active. But he’s disappointed. He really thought he could beat the murder charges.

“He still believes, despite what the jury found, that he never killed a live baby,” says his lawyer, Jack McMahon.

Gosnell performed some 16,000 abortions over 31 years at his clinic in west Philadelphia – a poor neighbourhood in one of the poorest big cities in the United States.

According to those responsible for regulating abortion clinics, his practice was fine. But they hadn’t checked. Or listened to complaints from doctors and other professionals. Or done anything after two women died from treatment there.

Gosnell was only stopped in 2010, when police executing a drug warrant entered the clinic and found feet in jars, bones in drains and foetuses stored in freezers above refrigerators that held workers’ lunches.

The gruesome details – including the dangerous, even lethal practice of using untrained staff to sedate women – are catalogued in the grand jury report. Last month a judge sentenced Gosnell to three consecutive life sentences for killing three newborns by snipping their spinal cords at the neck.

“Children were being born alive… they breathed and moved, they cried, and he severed their spinal cords and murdered them”

Seth Williams

District Attorney Seth Williams

Jack McMahon says in 35 years as an attorney, he’s never seen such a backlash against a client, who was widely termed a “monster”. His own cousin told him, “I love you, but I hope you don’t win,” McMahon says.

That strength of feeling is now driving the debate about abortion in the United States.

Kermit Gosnell is the son of a prominent African-American family in west Philadelphia. He attended one of the city’s top high schools before going on to study medicine locally at Thomas Jefferson University.

“He was probably at that time the only African-American medical student there,” says Joe Slobodzian, who has covered Gosnell for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And from every indication, he excelled.”

Kermit Gosnell's clinic, The Women's Medical Society
Several former clinic employees pleaded guilty to murder

In 1979, Gosnell opened the Women’s Medical Society in his old neighbourhood, at 3801 Lancaster Avenue. Pete Wilson, a local political activist with an office just up the road, says people used to look up to him.

“I guess he did the best he could for the community he lived in. Initially, he thought he was helping people, 13, 14, 15-year-old girls that had made mistakes, their parents bought them in.”

Wilson says the rooms inside were small and dimly lit. “It just didn’t seem like it was the kind of medical situation you would want to be in – not unless you were desperate. Because the abortions weren’t expensive. He was cheap. So that brought people who couldn’t afford to go anywhere but to him.”

It’s estimated Gosnell was making $1.8m (£1.1m) a year. He saved money by hiring unqualified staff. One “anaesthetist” had never finished high school.

District attorney Seth Williams ties Gosnell’s attitude to money directly to the murders. In a legal abortion, the foetus is injected with a lethal drug before the mother gives birth – but Gosnell didn’t do this.

“That takes money and it was cheaper for him to just induce labour and then murder the child,” Williams says.

Abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973. Each state sets limits on when abortions can be done, up to a national maximum of 24 weeks. The average pregnancy lasts 38 weeks. In Pennsylvania, where Gosnell practiced, the limit is 24 weeks.

“He was known in the community for doing abortions – didn’t matter what the gestation was,” says Pennsylvania State Representative Margo Davidson. Her cousin died following an abortion at Gosnell’s clinic in 2000. “You could get it done quickly, you could get it done cheaply, without any questions asked.”

Joe Slobodzian says Gosnell had gained a reputation as “the abortion doctor of last resort” across the east coast of the United States.

Now, his notoriety has spread nationwide. Pro-life organisations, which see any abortion as the murder of a child, have put great emphasis on the Gosnell case. One says it has put abortion itself on trial.

“There are a lot of people thinking very differently because of this case than they ever thought before,” says Dr Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union.

“There are many member of Congress who are saying, ‘We need to change the laws.’”

Shortly after that interview, members of Congress proved her right. They said “Gosnell” 63 times in a 60-minute debate last week, which ended in a vote to approve a Republican bill, H.R. 1797, that would ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks.

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn called it “an appropriate response to Kermit Gosnell’s house of horrors.” Opponents noted that murdering babies was already illegal – it’s just that in Gosnell’s case, no one was enforcing the law.

“It was a total failure of the governmental entities that have oversight over these facilities,” says District Attorney Seth Williams. He found that Gosnell’s clinic was last inspected in 1993.

“There was more inspection and oversight over public pools than over abortion clinics unfortunately in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has said bureaucrats simply weren’t doing their jobs, and some have been fired. No-one from the health departments of the City of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania would agree to be interviewed by the BBC. But a lawyer for the state Department of Health, Kenneth Brody, is quoted in a grand jury report into Gosnell, saying that a decision was taken to not regularly inspect clinics.

“There was a concern that if they did routine inspections, that they might find a lot of these facilities didn’t meet [the standards]… and then there would be less abortion facilities, less access to women having abortion”, he said.

The political reaction in Pennsylvania was swift.

A new law, Act 122, came into force last year and since then the State Department of Health has spent “1,500 man hours” inspecting abortion facilities, a spokeswoman told the BBC in an email.

“Our dedication to tougher oversight and ensuring full compliance with the law will continue far beyond Gosnell. We have a responsibility to create safer environments for women and to hold facilities accountable to higher standards and we will continue to fulfil that responsibility.”

This debate about standards is happening in many states, most notably in Texas – where pro-Life campaigners have branded one clinic providing abortions “another Gosnell”.

Wendy Davis
State senator Wendy Davis spoke for 10 hours to block a 20-week limit in Texas

But those who provide abortions say some of the higher standards have nothing to do with Gosnell, or even making women safer.

The Philadelphia Women’s Center is the city’s oldest abortion provider, part of the National Abortion Federation, an industry body which regularly inspects member clinics. (Gosnell’s clinic, of course, was not a member.) It’s always been clean and airy, says director Elizabeth Barnes, but recently installed a new heating and cooling system to comply with Act 122.

“We actually had to cut through the roof of our building, through the business of the floor above us and hire a crane to bring in the units which were brought in from the Midwest, because there was nowhere local that even made them,” Barnes says.

Her overall bill for complying with Act 122 is almost $500,000 (£326,000). Money wasted, she says, because it doesn’t make things safer “in any meaningful way”.

In fact, she says, by driving up the cost, Act 122 is putting clinics out of business and making it prohibitive for new ones to open.

“Gosnell was able to stay open because there was a need and no-one was filling it in his community,” she says. “And what we would hope for is that a good provider would rise in the place to fill the need. But if there is no way to make a facility financially viable, then facilities will not open.”

The result in that case, she says, will be “more Gosnells” – more unsafe abortions.

There were 24 abortion clinics in Pennsylvania before Act 122. Today, there are 19. Demand for abortion, based on calls to Philadelphia’s sexual health hotline, Choice, has not changed.

It’s hard to say what that means. It could mean existing clinics are picking up the slack. Women could be going to other states, or underground. Or it could mean there will be fewer abortions. Official figures for the number of abortions performed in 2012 won’t be published for months.

But State Representative Margo Davidson, who made an emotional appeal for Act 122 during a debate in the State legislature, telling the story of her 22-year-old cousin – who died “a gruelling and painful death” after an abortion at Gosnell’s clinic – says it’s crazy to think women today are less safe because of the new law.

“I was a poor black woman and I was a poor black girl, so if there was a need for an abortion even in my circle of friends, we came up with the money.

“As long as there are clinics that are providing safe services, poor women will find a way to terminate a pregnancy if they feel that they desperately need to do so.”

A cartoon showing pro-life and pro-choice campaigners nailing closed the door to Gosnell's clinic

It’s been three years since officers first raided Gosnell’s clinic. After his conviction in April, DA Seth Williams was given a framed cartoon, which he keeps on his desk.

“Why it’s funny is that both political extremes will argue that they were victorious with this conviction. I just try to continue to tell people that our investigation and our prosecution had nothing to do with the political or the moral decision of whether or not abortions are correct.

“Just that what he did was criminal. Children were being born alive, that they breathed and moved, they cried, and he severed their spinal cords and murdered them.”