More than 800 women's rights protesters crowded into the Texas Capitol on Sunday to watch Democrats try a series of parliamentary maneuvers to stop the Republican majority from passing some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country.
Democrats, some waving coat hangers to symbolize illegal abortions, passionately spoke against the bill or tried to add amendments to soften it. They started the session pointing to a technicality that delayed voting on any bills for 4½ hours. The forced adjournment burned up precious time since the session ends at midnight Tuesday and the abortion bill still needs to go back to the Senate for final approval.
While several bills are under consideration, the only one with a real chance is Senate Bill 5, an omnibus bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, require that they take place in surgical centers, and restrict where and when women can take abortion-inducing pills. Part of the new law also would require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.
Supporters say the measures are intended to protect women's health, but opponents call them needless regulations to make abortions more difficult to obtain. If passed, 37 out of 42 abortion clinics in Texas would have to close and undergo millions of dollars in upgrades.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jody Laubenberg, R-Parker, faced pointed questioning from Democrats opposing the bill. She opposed amendments to makes exceptions for victims of rape or incest and to rely on the latest, peer-reviewed medical studies for making legal decisions.
"The woman had five months to make that decision, at this point we are looking at a baby that is very far along in its development," Laubenberg said in rejecting new exceptions to the measure. "What I would like to do is raise the standard. You have clinics that are out there already at that standard of care and all I'm asking is that we raise the others to that level."
The Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hospital Association, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote letters urging lawmakers to vote against the bill, saying it would not raise the standard of care. Democrats asked why Republican lawmakers were ignoring their advice.
"We have that authority here in this state to make that determination," Laubenberg said, refusing the elaborate.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, gave a personal privilege speech decrying how the committee chairman denied hundreds of women the opportunity to testify against the bill, and then manipulated the parliamentary process to rush it to a vote.
"Everything about the process related to these abortion regulation bills has smelled like partisan politics," Farrar said. "Proponents of the bill have failed to demonstrate any evidence that the regulations imposed by these bills are necessary. Nor have they expressed any sign of responsible governance in ensuring that women will continue to be able to access safe and legal abortion care."
Anti-abortion groups have enormous influence in Texas' Republican primaries, and incumbents fearing tea party challenges need to register votes on conservative issues before they go home.
"This is important to a lot of people back home," said Rep. Bryan Hughes, a conservative Republican from Mineola. "For many of us, this is the bill of the session."
Blocking the bill has become a cause for Democrats, who have not won a statewide election in Texas since 1994 but are working to rebuild the party across the state. The Texas Democratic Party joined with women's rights groups and progressive organizations last week to rally hundreds of supporters around opposition to the proposed laws.
"This is our fight right here, today," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.
Gov. Rick Perry called the special session in May to adopt redistricting maps, but added abortion with only two weeks left before the session ends.
House Democrats said they had a variety of methods to stall and possibly even kill the bills late Sunday. But if they do pass early Monday, the Senate must still vote on them Tuesday, giving Senate Democrats a chance to filibuster the bill until midnight.
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