Texas lawmakers took up abortion limits again yesterday, hearing hours of testimony before voting to send a measure that Democrats blocked last week back to the state House of Representatives for renewed consideration.
The State Affairs committee voted 8-3 with two abstentions to move the measure to the House floor as soon as next week after throngs of onlookers for and against the bill rallied in the Statehouse around the chamber, in halls and corridors and on the grounds outside.
Senate debate on the limits last week drew national attention, including a comment from President Barack Obama, to Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat. Davis tried to block the bill with 13 hours of nonstop talk, only to be cut off by parliamentary moves. Still, with a raucous crowd of spectators cheering them on, Democrats prevented a vote before time ran out in the Republican-led chamber. That led to a special session so lawmakers could try again, over objections from opponents.
“You can disagree with abortion -- I’m not asking you to change your personal or moral stance -- you can think that it’s wrong and still recognize that this bill is not the way to fix the problem,” said Kate Caldwell of Austin. She said lawmakers should make reproductive health care more widely available instead of putting more limits on it.
At the hearing last night, opponents of the bill sporting orange clothing and supporters wearing blue spoke out on the measure, which would ban the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy and make Texas the most-populous state to require abortion clinics to meet hospital-like standards for ambulatory-surgery providers.
Critics say the bill would force most of the state’s 44 abortion providers, and maybe all of them, to close by making it too expensive or logistically impossible to comply. Only about 10 percent meet the proposed standards now. A requirement that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (50 kilometers) may be a challenge for them all.
Supporters, including Republican Governor Rick Perry, say the changes are needed to ensure women get proper health care and that the lives of the unborn are protected.
Representative Byron Cook, a Corsicana Republican who leads the committee, limited testimony on the measure after more than 3,200 people signed up to testify. Cook set a time limit of about three minutes for citizens speaking on their own behalf, and planned a midnight vote by the panel in Austin, the capital. Thousands who signed up weren’t given a chance to speak.
Activists on both sides of the issue began gathering hours before the hearing began, transforming the halls and rooms in the Capitol into a sea of orange and blue. Opponents shirts were emblazoned with slogans such as “Stand with Texas Women,” while those in favor for the bill read: “Let God plan parenthood” and “I’m a person,” beneath the image of a fetus.
“No vagina, no voice!” chanted hundreds of demonstrators opposed to the bill and in protest of the legislative procedures Republicans used to shepherd it toward passage. They held up coat-hangers as a symbol of what some women used to self-abort before the procedure was made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kathy Carr, a 42-year-old mother of five from Austin, said she has been coming regularly to the Capitol to voice her support for women’s rights. Opposite her, Derek Rich, 47, waited in line for hours with fellow members of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church, seeking to attend the hearing.
“I came to support my wife who was forced to have an abortion when she was 18,” said Rich, a wildlife biologist. “We need stricter laws so we can better protect life.”
As witnesses lined up to testify, abortion foes bowed in prayer, raised their hands and sang “Jesus loves the little children” and “The heartbeat of heaven is here.” An older woman thumbed a rosary. On her back, a sign read, “The American Auschwitz is Planned Parenthood. Death camp for babies.”
Spectators watched on television monitors from multiple overflow rooms as the hearing began at 3:30 p.m. local time.
Charles Lingerfelt, a retired educator from Dallas, told the panel that abortion was “wretched” and compared the procedure to a home burglary. He said it’s an “invasion of the first home of the baby who lives in the womb of the mother.”
Jane Norwood, a social worker from Austin, urged lawmakers to reject the measure, calling it government intrusion into private life.
Passage of the bill would erode women’s health and lead to more illegal, unsafe and unsupervised abortions, said Bradley Price, an obstetrician for 40 years. He said the bill wasn’t “based on sound science” and would be “extremely intrusive into the practice of medicine.”
Requiring abortion-clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital is a Catch-22, according to Stacy Wilson of the Texas Hospital Association. That standing is granted based on services a physician offers in a hospital, yet none in Texas provide elective abortions, she said. That alone could force all the state’s clinics to close, she said.
The failure of the measure last week in the Senate led Perry to call a second 30-day special session of the legislature, to give lawmakers another chance. It began July 1. Republicans dominate both the House and Senate, leaving opponents of the bill little other than procedural strategies, such as the filibuster by Davis, to block it.
If passed, the measure would take effect 91 days after the end of the session, said Representative Jodie Laubenberg, a Murphy Republican and the bill’s House sponsor. Clinics would have a year to comply with the new rules or face closure, she said. As a result, women in Texas may have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion.