House gives final approval to tougher abortion rules

Posted Monday, Jun. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The House today voted 95-34 to give final approval to a package of abortion restrictions backed by the Republican leadership, sending the hot-button measure heading toward a potential filibuster in the Senate in the final hours of the special session.

The action followed an all-night session in which House members gave preliminary approval about 3:15 a.m., prompting an angry backlash among hundreds of abortion-rights activists who descended on the State Capitol to protest the measure.

In a final round of speeches before the final vote, Democrats reasserted their contention that the bills would seriously reduce access to abortion clinics for thousands of women. They also charged that the measures were engineered by the GOP majority to appeal to Republican primary voters.

“What this bill is about, always has been, and always will be, ispolitical posturing,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, the number two member of House Democrats' leadership team. “It's about partisan politics. It's about Republican primaries. And that's a shame.”

But Republican Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood physician, said the measure is aimed at requiring abortion clinics to meet higher standards after reports of abortion "atrocities" at clinics in Philadelphia and Houston.

“This is truly about patient safety,” he said. “Anyone who says the current status quo is satisfactory is not paying attention.”

Following the preliminary vote, angry shouts of “boo” and “shame” rained down from a gallery packed predominately by abortion-rights supporters. House Democrats offered a series of unsuccessful amendments and attempted to slow down the bill as the Legislature's Republican majority seeks to push through the measure before Tuesday's adjournment.

House members also gave final approval to legislation creating a new sentencing option for 17-year-old defendants in capital felony cases. And they gave preliminary approval to a proposed constitutional amendment authorizing funding for transportation construction.

The prospect of yet another legislative overtime emerged Sunday as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, told reporters that Gov. Rick Perry is preparing to call a second special session after the current one.

"Unless I’m misreading him, we will be called back," the Quorum Report quoted Dewhurst as saying.

After hours of delays and parliamentary skirmishes, House members opened debate on the omnibus package of abortion restrictions at midevening Sunday as spectators watched from the gallery.

The legislation would tighten restrictions on abortion clinics and doctors who perform abortions. It also includes a so-called fetal pain provision banning abortions on or after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a provision that was removed from the Senate bill.

Anti-abortion groups have made the 20-week restriction a top priority, saying 20 weeks is when a fetus begins to feel pain. But Democrats challenged that assertion, contending that there is no scientific consensus that supports the pain threshold.

Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, the House sponsor of the bill, vowed to fend off proposed amendments and disputed opponents’ allegations that the toughened regulations will close most of the 40-plus abortion clinics in Texas.

Instead, she said, the measure will force clinics to bring their standards in line with those of other health facilities.

“Anything that raises the standard of health for the woman is a good thing,” the Collin County lawmaker said.

Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, received a thunderous standing ovation from abortion-rights supporters in the gallery after she assailed the House leadership for pushing aside another bill to accelerate action on the abortion measures.

“Everything about the process related to these abortion regulation bills has smelled of partisan politics,” Farrar said, asserting she had “never seen anything like this” in her nearly 20 years in the House.

“The truth is, these bills aren’t about women’s health and they aren’t about the will of the people,” Farrar said. “They’re about winning Republican primaries.”

The abortion measure is by far the most polarizing issue confronting lawmakers as they head toward adjournment Tuesday. Also awaiting final action in the four-item special session are bills on transportation, criminal justice and redistricting.

Perry, who is expected to announce a decision on his political future by July 1, added abortion to the special session to clear the way for legislation that he said would crack down on substandard abortion providers.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, called the abortion bills “very divisive” and said they “never should haven been added in the first place.”

On Sunday, hundreds of opponents lined the Capitol stairways and packed the House gallery as they responded to calls by abortion-rights groups to show their opposition to the bills. Protest organizers said that more than 1,000 people had signaled their intention to show up for the debate.

Jayne Keedy, a 63-year-old market research executive from Austin, wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with “Don’t Mess with Texas Women” as she stood among a cluster of demonstrators outside the second-floor House chamber. Keedy said her intention was to “make a presence in protest.”

Representing the other side of the issue were Thomas Umstattd of Austin and Don Davidson of Georgetown, who wore red tape lettered with “life” over their mouths.

Umstattd momentarily removed the tape to describe himself as “just a pro-life” supporter “passionate about standing for the life of the unborn.” The tape, he said, symbolized the “voicelessness of the unborn.”

Demonstrators on both sides of the issue clustered near the House chamber, sometimes applauding as members representing their positions passed by to go inside. Scores of abortion-rights advocates wearing orange T-shirts stood on a stairway nearest the chamber chanting, “Women’s rights are under attack.”

The House and Senate bills require that Texas abortion clinics, which are located mostly in urban areas, adhere to the same standards as those of a licensed ambulatory surgical center.

The bills also require that abortion clinic physicians have admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of the place where they perform abortions. And they require that if doctors administer the abortion inducing drug, RU-486, they do so in person.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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