AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Democrats in the Texas Senate on Friday questioned whether proposed abortion restrictions are constitutional and whether they would make it more difficult for women in the state to obtain health care.
Democrats grilled the Republican author of a bill that has prompted fervent demonstrations and put Texas at the center of the nation’s abortion debate. Following Friday’s debate, the Senate was scheduled to vote on the tough abortion restrictions and could send the bill to Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he will sign it.
As senators debated, they could clearly hear hundreds of protesters outside of the chamber in the Capitol rotunda cheering, chanting and singing, “We’re not going to take it anymore.”
The circus-like atmosphere in the Texas Capitol marked the culmination of weeks of protests, the most dramatic of which came June 25 in the final minutes of the last special legislative session when a Democratic filibuster and subsequent protest prevented the bill from becoming law. Abortion-rights advocates dressed in orange Friday, some carrying gynecological devices and signs, while anti-abortion activists wore blue and held images of fetuses and Bible verses.
House Bill 2 would require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, allow abortions only in surgical centers, limit where and when women may take abortion-inducing pills and ban abortions after 20 weeks. Only five out of 42 existing abortion clinics meet the requirements to be a surgical center, and clinic owners say they can’t afford to upgrade or relocate.
Sen. Glen Hegar of Katy, the bill’s Republican author, argued that all abortions, including those induced with medications, should take place in an ambulatory surgical center in case of complications.
Democrats pointed out that childbirth is more dangerous than an abortion and there have been no serious problems with women taking abortion drugs at home. They also planned to introduce numerous amendments to add exceptions for cases of rape and incest and to remove some of the more restrictive clauses.
Sen. Rodney West, a Dallas Democrat, asked why Hegar was pushing restrictions that federal courts in other states had suspended as possibly unconstitutional. The measures under consideration Friday mirror restrictions passed in Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kansas, Wisconsin and Arizona.
“There will be lawsuit. I promise you,” West said, raising his right hand as if taking an oath.
Passing the law in Texas would be a major victory for anti-abortion activists in the nation’s second most-populous state. A lawsuit originating in Texas would also likely win a sympathetic hearing at the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other Democrats questioned the intent of the bill, and whether it was intended to regulate abortion clinics out of existence.
“What would concern me is the political aspect of a political movement across this country … this rush to pass this for political purposes,” said Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat. He said it was clear the bill was part of national conservative agenda attempting to ban abortion and infringe on women’s rights one state at a time.
Whitmire also pressed Hegar on why the Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology opposed the bill. He asked Hegar how he could ignore these experts.
Hegar said he’s heard from “numerous exerts and doctors” who support the restrictions. “And what do we do if they are right and we don’t pass this legislation?” he added.
The bill could shut all but five abortion clinics in Texas and would be a win long-eyed by conservatives who make abortion a key campaign issue, but the raucous debate has also given Texas Democrats newfound momentum. The Republican majority is expected to ultimately pass the bill, with Democrats left to do little more than enter into the legislative record material that could help defeat it in federal court.
Troopers thoroughly checked the bags of people entering the gallery, which holds almost 500 spectators. Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Rick DeLeon said no props — including speculums and coat hangers — would be allowed into the Senate gallery, per decorum rules.
The Department of Public Safety said jars suspected to contain urine and feces were among the items that were confiscated. Officers also took paint, glitter, confetti and feminine hygiene products.
The leader of the chamber’s Democrats, Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, said he intervened to stop troopers from confiscating tampons from women seeking to watch the debate, but DPS did not confirm that.
Each spectator was issued a copy of the rules of decorum, which stipulate there can be no demonstrations or attempts to disrupt the chamber’s work. The Texas Constitution gives the Senate’s leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the authority to jail those who break those rules for up to 48 hours, no court necessary.
Democrats successfully blocked the bill in the regular legislative session. During the first special session, the Senate didn’t take up the bill until the final day. That allowed Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis to use a filibuster to delay a vote. When Republicans rushed to try to pass the bill in the session’s final 15 minutes, angry protesters began shouting and screaming from the gallery. Dewhurst could only watch with frustration as a half-dozen state troopers tried to remove more than 450 people.
Democrats believe Republicans have overreached in trying to appease their base and alienated suburban women, a constituency that helped President Barack Obama win re-election.
Sen. Dan Patrick, a chief proponent of the bill, said that if debate goes on too long this time, Republicans will move to cut off debate.
“I’m not going to let it go on forever tonight,” he said.