Democrats have called the sweeping GOP proposal unnecessary and unconstitutional, but pressed for minor changes to soften the impact of the bill.
The Senate’s debate took place between a packed gallery of demonstrators, with anti-abortion activists wearing blue and abortion-rights supporters wearing orange. Security was tight, and state troopers reported confiscating bottles of urine and feces as they worked to prevent another attempt to stop the Republican majority from passing a proposal that has put Texas at the center of the nation’s abortion debate.
Senators could hear hundreds of protesters outside of the chamber in the Capitol rotunda cheering, chanting and singing, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” Some wore gynecological devices around their necks. Supporters of the restrictions carried photos of fetuses and Bible verses, praying in the hallway for the bill to pass.
The Senate could vote on the abortion restrictions later Friday or early Saturday, sending the bill to Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he will sign it. The Republican majority is expected to 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.
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.
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 introduced amendments to add exceptions for cases of rape and incest and to remove some of the more restrictive clauses.
Sen. Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat, proposed an exception to the 20-week ban for child victims of rape or incest.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give these victims an additional month to make up their minds,” Uresti said.
But Hegar responded that if an abortion were necessary to protect a child from imminent harm or death, an abortion after 20 weeks would be allowed.
Hegar also rejected an amendment to expand that exception to make it for the mother’s health and not limit it to imminent harm.
Earlier, Sen. Rodney West, a Dallas Democrat, asked why Hegar was pushing restrictions that federal courts in other states had suspended as possibly unconstitutional.
“There will be a lawsuit. I promise you,” West said, raising his right hand as if taking an oath.
The bill under consideration mirrors restrictions passed in Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kansas, Wisconsin and Arizona. In North Carolina, lawmakers are considering a measure that would allow state health officials to apply standards for ambulatory surgical centers to abortion clinics.
Passing the law in Texas would be a major victory for anti-abortion activists in the nation’s second most-populous state. Hegar acknowledged working with anti-abortion groups to draft the legislation. 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.
Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, 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. He 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.
“There are differences in the medical profession,” Hegar insisted, rejecting the criticism. “I don’t believe this legislation will majorly impede the doctor-patient relationship.”
Sen. Bob Deuell, a Greenville Republican and a doctor, defended the bill, saying abortion clinics “had not maintained the proper standard of care.”
The Senate’s leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, was determined to keep the vote on track. The Texas Constitution gives him the authority to jail anyone who breaks the chamber’s rules of decorum, which stipulate that there can be no demonstrations or attempts to disrupt the Senate’s work.
In addition to the jars of suspected urine and feces, officers took paint, glitter, confetti and feminine hygiene products from people seeking to ender the gallery, according to the Department of Public Safety.
The issue has been simmering for months in Texas.
Democrats successfully blocked the bill in the regular legislative session. Then, 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 see in the protests an opportunity that could help them break a 20-year statewide losing streak. They believe Republicans have overreached in trying to appease their base and alienated suburban women, a constituency that helped President Barack Obama win re-election.