A large crowd, many wearing Planned Parenthood T-shirts that read “Stand with Texas Woman,” gather at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Sunday.(Photo: Ricardo B. Brazziell, AP)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Republicans in the Texas House on Monday passed one of the nation's most wide-ranging packages of abortion restrictions, but efforts by Democrats to slow the process threatened to kill the measure before the end of the special session.
Democrats stalled the vote as long as possible on the second to last day of the special legislative session, hoping to delay long enough for their colleagues in the Senate to filibuster the bill on Tuesday night.
The proposal would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and limit abortions to surgical centers. Other states have passed similar bills, but few have the full set. Federal judges have thrown out the restrictions in some states.
The measure passed 95-34, with the support of four Democrats, and must now sit for 24 hours before the Senate can vote on it and send it to Gov. Rick Perry.
House Democrats used parliamentary tactics to draw out the debate for 15 hours Sunday night and into Monday morning, pointing out technical mistakes in the process or trying to tack on amendments to fundamentally change the bill. Democrats also showed up more than two hours late Monday morning.
Supporters say the bill would improve women's health care. Opponents warn it would shut down 37 out of 42 abortion clinics in the state, leaving wide swaths of Texas without access.
Sunday night's debate was grueling, and the bill's sponsor stopped answering questions after she got into trouble denying Democratic amendments. When Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, called for an exemption for women who were victims of rape and incest, Rep. Jody Laubenberg, R-Parker, explained why she felt it was unnecessary.
"In the emergency room they have what's called rape kits where a woman can get cleaned out," she said, comparing the procedure to an abortion. "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."
Her apparent confusion about "rape kits" - a phrase generally used to describe the equipment used by medical personnel during forensic examinations to gather physical evidence following allegations of rape or sexual assault - sparked widespread ridicule on social media sites. Laubenberg then simply rejected all proposed changes to her bill without speaking until the end of the debate.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, eight state legislatures have banned abortions after 20 weeks, Arizona did so at 18 weeks and Arkansas passed a ban after 12 weeks. Federal judges have thrown out the laws in Arizona and Iowa, and judges have blocked similar measures in the other states.
Mississippi and Tennessee also passed laws requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The only abortion clinic still operating in Mississippi is battling to stay open because of new facility requirements and because of a requirement that doctors have privileges at a local hospital. In North Dakota, abortion clinics are suing against similar laws passed this year to remain open.
Most hospitals in Texas do not grant privileges to doctors who perform abortions, either for religious reasons or for fear of becoming the target of protests. Abortion-rights supporters warn that Texas' legal cocktail is designed to shut down all of the abortion clinics in the state.
"If this passes, abortion would be virtually banned in the state of Texas, and many women could be forced to resort to dangerous and unsafe measures," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of the late former Texas governor Ann Richards.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has proclaimed that would be a huge success for the anti-abortion movement. Dewhurst is one of many Republicans who will likely face a more conservative challenger in the 2014 primary race and is anxious to score points with religious conservatives.
Many members of the conservative majority had flyers on their desks that read "Psalm 139:13-14," which reads in part: "You covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
Democrats have found political leverage in the measure, Senate Bill 5. Hundreds of women's rights supporters flooded last week's committee hearing and Sunday night's debate, giving the party a chance to register new voters and supporters.
Democratic House members continuously invoked the "war on women" during the debate.
"We are willing to have an attack on women in order to have someone's political agenda achieved," Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said in opposition to stopping debate on the bill.
Perry added abortion to the special session in the final two weeks, after lawmakers had already taken up redistricting.
Texas Senate Bill 5: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/history.aspx?LegSess831&BillSB5