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Republicans prevail in abortion vote; Democrats to continue fight in court

Posted Saturday, Jul. 13, 2013  Print Reprints
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Number of abortions reported in Texas: 2000: 76,121 2001: 77,537 2002: 79,929 2003: 79,166 2004: 75,053 2005: 77,374 2006: 82,056 2007: 81,079 2008: 81,591 2009: 77,850 2010: 77,592 2011: 72,470 Total: 937,818 Source: Texas Department of State Health Services
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After more than eight hours of debate, the plan to enact some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion regulations was approved 19-11 by the Texas Senate late Friday.

Next: Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for his signature, which is expected soon.

After that: a promised legal challenge from Democrats.

The bill is about to become a law that will restrict abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and put in place regulations so strict that only a handful of abortion clinics, including one in Fort Worth, likely will remain. The final debate drew thousands of activists for and against the legislation to the state Capitol.

As the roar of protesters could be heard inside the normally quiet Senate chambers, senators voted along party lines to approve the measure.

Inside the Capitol as the debate was concluding, Democratic senators reacted forcefully when they felt that Republican Sen. Dan Patrick was questioning the faith of opponents.

Outside, enraged opponents promised to protest through the night in Austin.

There was a boisterous sit-in involving thousands of demonstrators at the Capitol immediately after the vote, and there were several skirmishes involving protesters and DPS troopers. Numerous arrests were reported, along with several minor injuries, but no details were available from authorities early Saturday.

The mayhem outside Senate chambers was a constant concern inside, where senators waged a solemn debate.

“This is one of the most emotional issues we deal with,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, in giving a closing argument for the bill just before the vote. “Every life is precious. Every life is worth something. Every life deserves to be protected. I choose life.”

Democrats conceded before Friday’s debate that they didn’t have the votes to prevent the bill from passing, but vowed to file a legal challenge once Perry signs the measure into law.

“This has been an extraordinary few weeks,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “Nerves are frayed, tempers are short. People want to get out of here but we are here.”

The debate “has deeply and profoundly divided us,” said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who led a more than 11-hour filibuster to help derail this bill during the first special session. “We have learned the hard way that this fight can bring out the worst in politics and politicians.”

Davis said she has been repeatedly “brought to tears” by the stories of Texas women who oppose the bill because they believe it will harm women’s health care. And she and other leading opponents of the bill predicted that those women will rise at the ballot box in next year’s elections.

“The fight for the future of Texas has just begun,” she declared.

Republicans rammed the legislation through for political reasons, Davis contended, saying: “This is something we should take our time with ... and that is not happening. There are people in charge who want this bill to move very quickly so they won't be delayed in their climb up the political ladder.”

Davis said she believes in life, but she also believes women “deserve to determine the direction of their lives.”

As the vote neared, several women in the gallery tried to chain themselves to the railing — and were removed by law officers as they sang, “All we are saying is give us a choice.” While attention focused on them, another woman successfully chained herself to something in the gallery and the Senate paused as officers worked to remove her.

After work resumed, a few other women periodically yelled “I can’t take it any more” or “You should be ashamed of yourselves” and were also removed from the chamber.

Sit-in

Shortly after the vote, a few dozen activists staged a sit-in protest outside the Senate chamber.

They chanted "people united will never be defeated" as DPS troopers formed a line between them and the people leaving the Senate chambers.

They also said "the state of Texas is now a danger zone for women."

Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, sent out a statement praising the Senate in taking the "final step in our historic effort to protect life."

"This legislation builds on the strong and unwavering commitment we have made to defend life and protect women's health," he said. "I am proud of our lawmakers and citizens who tirelessly defended our smallest and most vulnerable Texans and future Texans."

Those fighting against the bill disagreed.

"What's happened here... is going to fast-forward change in Texas in the long run, but unfortunately a lot of women will suffer in the process," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

"These extreme and deeply unpopular attacks on women's health have lit a fuse -- they've engaged many more people in the democratic process in Texas -- they've started something big that can't be undone."

Many hours earlier, Texans on both sides of the issue — supporters wearing blue and opponents wearing orange — began showing up at the Texas Capitol long before dawn, hoping for a chance at securing a seat in the Senate gallery to watch the long-awaited debate on this issue.

Supporters say the ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy could spare as many as 400 lives a year and is needed because a fetus can feel pain at that stage.

Opponents say the measure — which puts new restrictions on abortion-inducing drugs, requires that abortions be performed at ambulatory surgical centers and that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic — will lead to countless facilities closing and threaten countless women’s health.

There now are about three dozen licensed health centers in Texas where women may get abortions, and all but a handful likely would close if this bill becomes law. Facilities would likely remain only in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

During the debate, the bill’s author, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, Jr., R-Katy, spoke about the need to prevent abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Above and beyond that, he said, it’s important for abortions — including those induced through medication — to occur in an ambulatory surgical center in case there are any complications.

Democrats strongly objected, saying there haven’t been serious problems reported with women taking the abortion drug at home and noting that there are likely to be more complications with childbirth than abortion.

“Do you believe women have a right to choose?” state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked.

He and other Democrats said they knew they didn’t have the votes to stop this bill from passing, so they wanted to lay the groundwork for future lawsuits.

Even though Hegar said early in the debate that he wouldn’t accept any amendments, Democrats unsuccessfully proposed nearly two dozen changes, ranging from exempting rape and incest victims from the 20 week ban to requiring abortion clinics to have yearly, unannounced inspections.

“There will be [a lawsuit],” West said. “I promise you. I promise you.”

At one point, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, became obviously frustrated that more consideration wasn’t sincerely being given to exempting rape and incest victims from the 20 week ban.

“We have two weeks left,” he said, referring to the time left in this 30-day special session. “Why don’t we decide to do it the right way for the victims.”

Similar laws have passed in a handful of other states. Judges in other states have held up similar laws from being implemented as they send the laws to higher courts for additional scrutiny.

Added security

The abortion bill first drew nationwide attention last month after it died on the last day of the first special session, following a more than 11-hour filibuster by Davis, as deafening noise from the crowd in the gallery prevented senators from knowing whether they had voted on the bill before the session ended at midnight.

For that reason, security has been increased at the Capitol in recent weeks and even more so on Friday.

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers have been a common sight throughout the Capitol, especially in the Senate gallery where dozens of troopers were on duty, many carrying tie-wraps that could be used as handcuffs.

A social media firestorm dubbed “tampon-gate” erupted after DPS troopers began searching visitors’ bags after learning spectators “planned to use a variety of items or props to disrupt legislative proceedings at the Texas Capitol.”

Troopers made people throw away food, drinks, paper, Kleenex, tampons and any other items that could be thrown at senators.

DPS officials also said they found and confiscated one jar of suspected urine, 18 jars of suspected feces, three bottles of suspected paint, as well as glitter, confetti and “significant quantities” of feminine hygiene products.

Many people on social media sites such as Twitter expressed outrage that visitors had to throw out tampons but concealed handgun permit holders could still be in the gallery with their handguns.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was roundly blamed for allowing chaos at the conclusion of the first special session last month. But for the big moment of this special session, he was in much more firm control.

He welcomed visitors to the Capitol but he repeatedly warned them to follow Senate rules that prevent applause, signs, outbursts and demonstrators in the gallery.

Capitol crowd

Michelle Smith, a 39-year-old who lives in a Dallas suburb, arrived at the Capitol around 5 a.m. and claimed the first spot in line for a seat in the gallery.

Wearing a blue shirt, she sat in the hallway for hours, watching as others lined up behind her, creating long lines that snaked through the rotunda, down hallways and stairways on each floor, until they reached the Capitol basement.

“Life matters,” she said. “It’s important to be here. I want to support the members who are voting ‘yes’ today.”

About ten people deep in the line was Guadalupe Switala — a 52-year-old Grapevine mother who was the first person in line wearing an orange shirt.

Switala left her North Texas home around 1:30 a.m. Friday to drive to Austin and claim her place in line.

“There’s an attack on women’s rights,” she said. “I’m pro-life too, but I’ll fight to the grave for rights my daughter should have. This is just the start.”

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