Texans vow to weigh in on the abortion bill debate during this special session

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 02, 2013  Print Reprints

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North Texas organizers and activists on both sides of the abortion debate were out in force again Monday at the Texas Capitol, pledging to dig their heels in again for a second special session and ensure their voices are heard.

It was hard not to hear them Monday — especially the estimated 5,000 orange-clad activists who rallied against the abortion regulation bill inside and outside the Capitol.

Scattered among the sea of orange were clusters of blue-clad counter-demonstrators who prayed, clutched crosses, sang and watched the debate from the Senate gallery, but they were far outnumbered by opponents of the legislation.

It was the largest demonstration at the Capitol in recent memory. Inside, state troopers lined some hallways in a clear sign that officials plan every effort to control the chaos that marked the end of the first special legislative session last week.

“The odds are against us on this one, but that doesn’t mean we should let it happen,” said Alexis Lohse, a Fort Worth mother of two. “The abortion debate in Texas is not settled.”

But supporters are confident they’ve got the votes to make it happen, and they’d like to avoid the drama of the first special session, when opponents made so much noise that they drowned out action on on the bill.

“We are focusing on the bill and trying to get it passed,” said Kyleen Wright, of Mansfield, president of the Texans for Life Coalition. “We have a plan and are going to follow it.”

A chaotic night

It was in the waning moments of the first special session on June 25 that chaos erupted when senators tried to take a last-minute vote after ending a filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. Many in the gallery drowned out senators’ voices, preventing them from knowing whether they had voted for the measure.

Hours after the session expired, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said votes cast came after midnight and were not valid.

Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back to work to address the issue, as well as two other measures that died: transportation funding and sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder.

Empowered by the success of already preventing the bill from passing once, many opposing the bill rallied Monday, led by Davis and Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards.

“A fuse has been lit in Austin and there is growing opposition across the state to these attacks that endanger women’s health and safety,” Richards said. “People all across Texas are rising up to demand their voices be heard.”

Supporters of the bill say they will not be drowned out, as the Texas Senate was last week.

“They packed out our State House in the last session. Over 800! Where were we?” Cylynda Caviness, former president of the Grand Prairie Republican Club, recently posted on Facebook. “Let’s commit to being there on the days that this bill is passed in both the House and the Senate.”

‘Powder keg’

Dewhurst has called those who drowned out senators an “unruly mob” and vowed the abortion bill won’t die again.

Wright was in the Senate gallery last week when those opposing the bill began yelling, cheering, shouting, even crying.

“The tension was unbelievable,” she said. “It was a powder keg. Even though we had seen the emotion, and watched it play out, I was just as shell-shocked as some of the senators.

“It was an incredible, unbelievable subversion of the process.”

She and other bill supporters, easily identifiable by their blue shirts, were escorted out of the Senate gallery to a separate area in the Capitol. There, they waited behind locked doors — as family members worried about their safety — until DPS troopers could safely guide them off Capitol grounds.

Wright, still concerned about the high emotions from last week, didn’t encourage fellow supporters to overwhelm the Capitol on Monday.

“We are putting all of our efforts into the things that matter: attending committee meetings, giving testimony, being present for votes, getting the bill passed — not a PR campaign,” she said.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, who recently announced he will challenge Dewhurst for his job, said there won’t be another filibuster in the Senate on this topic.

“I plan to stop Sen. Davis or any Democrat from attempting, for the second time, to slow down or kill our package of pro-life legislation,” said Patrick, R-Houston. “Sen. Davis and the mob had their say last week. It’s time to pass this bill.

“It’s time the pro-life community had their voice heard.”

‘Got your back’

Despite predictions of quick passage, opponents aren’t willing to stand down.

Like Republicans, they’ll monitor the bill’s progress and drive to Austin when possible to testify or be present for votes on the measure.

“We need to stay plugged in to the process of the bill and where it is,” said Lohse, a full-time student at TCU, who introduced Wendy Davis to the crowd at a “high noon” rally at the Capitol Monday. “In the past, legislation like this has been able to just go through.

“It’s pretty obvious from the way the majority party conducted themselves during the last session, they didn’t expect a lot of opposition and didn’t put it on a fast time line. … [But now], women in Texas are paying attention.”

Planned Parenthood, MoveOn and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas are just a few of the organizations working to help drum up opposition to the bill.

They had some celebrity help at Monday’s rally outside the Capitol.

Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, a Texan who famously took a public swipe at then-President George W. Bush over the Iraq War in 2003, sang the national anthem and the song she wrote in response to backlash to her comment to Bush, “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.” The crowd around her waved dozens of handmade signs with messages including, “Separate Your Church from My Uterus,” and a plane circled above pulling the banner: “Stand With Wendy.”

Inside, state Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican and emergency room physician, wore her doctor’s coat and scrubs as she spoke in favor of the bill, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks and impose new restrictions on providers that could force all but five clinics statewide to close.

“I am thankful I am a voice in the government to stand for life,” Campbell said.

Some blue-clad supporters of the proposed restrictions held a prayer vigil near the Senate gallery as nearly 75 people recited the Lord’s Prayer.

In other hallways, anti-abortion activists sang “Amazing Grace,” and were met with jeers from abortion-rights demonstrators who chanted: “My body, my life, my choice to decide!”

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley