Texas' Senate Democrats want statewide hearings on abortion bill

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 03, 2013  Print Reprints

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Texas Senate Democrats are asking for statewide hearings on an abortion restrictions bill that has drawn thousands of demonstrators to the state Capitol this week.

Their push to take the debate out of Austin comes after House Republicans voted early Wednesday to move forward with new abortion restrictions, after limiting testimony at a public committee hearing and deciding not to consider Democratic amendments.

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, leader of the Senate Democrats, asked Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound to conduct hearings outside of Austin.

Nelson, a Republican, has not yet scheduled any hearings. Her office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Democrats hope to create more delays on a bill they seek to block. More than 3,500 people registered as witnesses at a House committee hearing Tuesday night.

The vote to approve the restrictions came on a party-line vote, with the Republican majority sending the bill to the full Texas House for a vote next week.

Gov. Rick Perry is pushing his allies in the Legislature to move quickly after he called lawmakers back for a second special session to pass the bill, which would limit when, where and how women could obtain an abortion in the state.

A Democrat filibuster helped block the bill last week. Republican majorities in the House and Senate are expected to pass the bill in the new 30-day special session.

Limiting testimony

While more than 3,500 people registered a position on the bill, and more than 1,000 signed up to testify, fewer than 100 people had a chance to express their views because the top Republican on the committee limited testimony to eight hours and refused entreaties to extend it.

“We took testimony in the regular session, in the first special. We’ve taken a lot of testimony,” said House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, in explaining his decision to limit testimony.

But Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat and among the state’s more senior lawmakers, said he objected to cutting off testimony.

“The people have the right to come here, and they have the right to be heard. I think it’s wrong to cut them off,” Turner said.

Just before the committee’s vote, Turner tried to offer amendments, but Cook refused to recognize him or any other Democrat on the committee.

“You can bring it up on the [House] floor,” Cook said.

Turner replied, “You know that’s just wrong!”

Marching in circles

When the hearing began, the corridors were filled with equal numbers of bill supporters, wearing blue, and opponents, wearing orange, but as the night wore on the orange T-shirts became the majority. In some cases, bill opponents marched in circles around anti-abortion activists. There were no arrests or violent incidents reported.

Local pizza shops delivered hundreds of pizzas and drinks to the crowd, and organizers registered people to vote and collected email lists.

The debate over the abortion restrictions has mobilized the public like no other issue in at least a decade. About 700 of the bill’s opponents showed up for a hearing during the first special session, and thousands filled the Capitol on that session’s final day to support Fort Worth Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster of the bill.

After that session ended and the bill failed, Perry called the Legislature back for a second special session to pass the bill, forcing lawmakers to start again from scratch with committee hearings.

Those who got the chance to testify frequently offered emotional or angry testimony. Some women shared how they felt their abortions were horrible mistakes, while others said their abortions gave them a second chance. Others cited the Bible in calling for a total ban on the procedure, and some told the lawmakers to stop interfering with their right to decide when or if they have children.

“In this country, we’ve forgotten about a big law: ‘Thou shall not kill,’” said Dorothy Richardson, representing the Houston Coalition for Life, in supporting the bill.

Gay Caldwell, who opposes the bill, said that protecting a woman’s health meant making sure abortions are legal and safe.

“This bill is about women’s lives, and I don’t think you want to play politics with women’s lives,” she said.