A bill that critics say would force most Texas abortion clinics to close moved to Governor Rick Perry after Democrats failed to block a Senate vote and in spite of the biggest political protests at the capitol in decades.
The Senate backed the measure 19-11 early today after more than nine hours of debate. Perry, 63, supports the bill, which the Republican-led House of Representatives already approved.
The legislation bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires the state’s 42 abortion clinics to meet standards similar to those for outpatient surgical centers. Texas is the largest and most-populous state to pass such rules, part of a widening thrust by abortion opponents and Republican lawmakers nationwide to enact requirements that opponents say are too expensive or logistically impossible to meet.
“No one wants an abortion but until you’ve walked in their shoes, you can’t understand how difficult your legislation is going to make that procedure” for some women, said Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat. “I really hope we understand the seriousness of what we are debating today.”
During debate on the measure, more than 40 state troopers stood in the Senate visitor gallery after Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican whose duty is to preside over the chamber, warned that unruly behavior would lead to ejections.
After several opponents of the bill were taken out, including one woman who chained herself to a railing and another who screamed: “this bill has been a farce,” Dewhurst said he would have the gallery cleared if there were further outbursts.
In recent years, similar laws have been blamed for clinic closings in Virginia and Pennsylvania. This week, North Carolina lawmakers considered a measure that would give state health officials the power to impose similar requirements.
The Texas bill also would require abortion doctors obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (50 kilometers). Most clinics would have to alter facilities to meet the surgical-center standards, which abortion-rights advocates say they can’t afford. Doctors at other clinics may struggle to win admitting privileges.
Debate over the measure drew national attention last month after Senator Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, tried to block a vote on it by speaking for more than 11 hours and running down the clock on a 30-day special session.
In the galleries, grounds and hallways of the capitol, abortion-rights supporters regularly outnumbered those who backed the measure during that debate. Opponents of the bill jeered Republicans and made so much noise in the Senate chamber during the final hours of last month’s session that they helped Davis prevent the measure from passing before time ran out.
Perry, in a June 27 statement, described the bill as a “human rights issue” and said he reconvened the legislature for the current session because passing it was too important “to allow the unruly actions of a few to stand in its way.”
Former Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards came to Texas to lobby lawmakers over the bill.
“How would God vote if he were here,” Senator Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, said during today’s debate, adding that he was voting for the bill to protect unborn children. The comment drew a rebuke from Whitmire, who said Patrick “crossed the line” by questioning the faith of others.
Abortion-rights advocates said the rules were an effort to shut down the state’s abortion clinics and curb a woman’s right to choose in Texas. Supporters described the new requirements as improving health care.
The abortion industry “doesn’t play by the rules,” said Senator Robert Deuell, a Greenville Republican and a doctor with a family practice. For those pregnant women deemed “unsophisticated patients” because of a lack of education, Deuell said, “It’s up to us to take care of them.”
Deuell cited the murder case of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell in explaining his support for stricter safety standards. Gosnell was convicted in May of killing three infants during illegal third-trimester procedures and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Republican-dominated House and Senate held hearings over the past 10 days, including taking testimony from more than 300 witnesses -- far fewer than sought to testify -- and twice stretched late into the night. Thousands of activists attended rallies at the capitol, the largest that lawmakers said they could remember in decades.
Chanting by hundreds of abortion-rights advocates wearing orange shirts echoed through the Senate as Republicans blocked more than a dozen proposed amendments that would have slowed progress to a vote on the bill in the chamber, where Democrats are in the minority.
Officers discovered 18 jars suspected to contain feces and one believed to hold urine, as well as three bottles containing what looked like paint, carried by people seeking to enter the gallery, the state Public Safety Department said in a statement. Those items, plus feminine hygiene products such as tampons, had to be discarded before visitors were allowed into the chamber.
The bill headed for Perry’s desk would continue Texas’s decade-old efforts to reduce abortions, Dewhurst said at a July 11 news briefing.
“This sends the signal we care about women’s health and the unborn,” Dewhurst said.