AUSTIN — Long-fought legislation to toughen abortion restrictions in Texas moved one step closer to reality late Tuesday.After more than 10 hours of debate, members of the Republican-led House voted 98-49 to give preliminary approval to a proposal geared to prevent abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and put in place restrictions that would essentially shut down most abortion clinics in Texas.Final House approval of the bill could come as soon as today, sending the issue to the Texas Senate, where it died in the final moments of the first special legislative session that ended last month. Democrats managed to thwart the measure with a filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and loud noise from the crowd in the galleries that created pandemonium.“This is great for Texas,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, one of the many supporters of the bill. “It ensures that, when you have a major surgery that requires the taking of a life, [facilities] meet minimal health and safety standards.“This will save thousands of lives and improve health care for women.”State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, disagreed.He said this bill died before for a reason: because it is “bad policy.” And it should have stayed dead, he said.“Let’s not say the bill is about women’s health or about public safety,” said Turner. “It will do a lot to prevent safe and legal abortions. ... This bill is about shutting down clinics.”Tarrant County members voted along party lines, with Republicans for the bill and Democrats against it.At the heart of the debate is banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.Other provisions of the bill require abortions to be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, create more oversight of women taking abortion-inducing drugs such as RU-486 and require doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the facilities where the perform abortions.There now are about three dozen licensed health centers in Texas where women may get abortions. If this measure becomes law, all but a few of those clinics would likely close, leaving facilities only in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, estimates show.Emotions on this issue run high — so high that security at the Capitol was increased, as officials sought to avoid a repeat of what happened in the Senate last month, an outcry top GOP officials have called “mob rule” and Democrats have dubbed a “citizens filibuster.”State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, cautioned observers in the House gallery several times about reacting to debate.“Sit there quietly and observe or we will ask you to leave,” Geren told the crowd, saying officials would clear the entire gallery if necessary.By evening, he thanked observers in the gallery. “Y’all have been really great,” he said. “Thank you for coming to your House.” As the late night vote was cast in the House, observers in the gallery remained quiet. A few minutes later, a muffled roar — and chants — could be heard coming from the Capitol Rotunda, where activists on both sides of the issue had spent hours sitting, standing, singing and chanting.The House sponsor of the bill — state Rep. Jodie Laudenberg, R-Parker — successfully fended off more than two dozen attempts to add amendments to the measure.“This is not about politics,” she said. “This is the right thing to do.”Although the measure is expected to become law because Republicans have the votes to pass it, Democrats spent hours unsuccessfully trying to add amendments that could lay groundwork for future legal challenges.“It’s a recipe for litigation,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “We will fight this in court another day.”Proposed amendments ranged from reimbursing women seeking abortions for travel and lodging costs if they live more than 30 miles from a clinic and a doctor has given them medical referrals for abortions to expanding the Baby Moses law and letting babies up to 1-year-old be taken to a safe location and given up if the mother was not able to get an abortion after being pregnant for 20 weeks.At one point, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, made an emotional request to add an exception to the ban against abortions after 20 weeks for victims of incest and rape.Thompson said she doesn’t want to see women forced, once again, into having back-alley abortions. She said women need a safe choice.“I just don't want that choice to be a knitting needle,” she said. “I don't want that choice to be a feather. I don't want that choice to be a bottle of turpentine. And I don't want that choice to be a coat hanger."Laubenberg and Republican House members rejected adding any amendments to the bill.“The woman will have the ability to have an abortion for five months, but at five months and beyond, we are now talking [about] a child that will feel that pain,” Laubenberg said.The gallery was dominated by spectators wearing blue clothing, signifying support for the bill. Many supporters arrived at the Capitol around 5 a.m. to make sure they could get into the chamber. Many wearing orange, signifying opposition, arrived later.Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Jennifer Hall was among more than a dozen local residents who arrived at the capitol early Tuesday, saying she felt she needed to be present for the debate.“This is a pro-life bill, but it also really does protect women’s health,” she said. “It’s the first step toward doing this the right way and addressing both concerns.”Statewide tourBefore the House debate began Tuesday — as supporters of the legislation debated in the House sang hymns in the Capitol — Senate Democrats held a press conference outside the building touting a new Stand with Texas Women statewide tour.Democrats had asked for statewide hearings on the abortion bill, but were told that it wasn’t practical during the limited time lawmakers have in a 30-day session to debate legislation.“It’s well past time that those in control stop, think and listen tot he people of Texas,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said. “We need to take this conversation about women’s health and women’s rights outside the legislative bubble in Austin.”So they have already started traveling around, with Planned Parenthood officials and others, talking to Texans, through their Stand with Texas Women bus tour. They’ll be in Fort Worth at 7 p.m. tonight at CWA Local 6201, 421 S. Adams St.“We are traveling around Texas to hear your stories, to learn about your personal challenges, and to stand with you against a state leadership that has become a very real threat to Texans’ rights and the well-being of Texas families,” said Davis of Fort Worth.Tuesday’s House debate came after a House committee approved the bill last week after allowing about eight hours of testimony, but cutting off thousands more who had registered. The Senate Health and Human Service Committee, headed by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, took testimony from hundreds of Texans on the bill starting Monday and wrapping up in the early morning hours Tuesday. The committee didn’t vote on the bill, but is expected to have a discussion and likely a vote Thursday after the House finishes its work.The full Senate will take up the bill after that.
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley