Texas lawmakers are poised to pass a bill as early as tomorrow that opponents say will close most of the state’s abortion clinics, ending a month that attracted thousands of activists in the most passionate public debate in Austin in a decade.
A Senate committee today passed the bill that would make Texas the most-populous state to require abortion clinics to meet hospital-like standards for ambulatory-surgery providers. Supporters say the measure, which already has passed the Texas House, improves safety conditions for women seeking abortions, while opponents argue it is the latest attempt to make abortion unaffordable and inaccessible for many Texas women.
“It’s going to pass tomorrow or Saturday and then there’s going to be a lawsuit, and I think it’s eventually going to wind up at the Supreme Court,” state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, said in an interview. “This is about a national agenda by the Republican Party to block abortion.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who called this special session, is eager to sign the bill.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a 2012 Republican president candidate, showed up in Austin today at a press conference where he criticized “national Republicans” for urging lawmakers to back off on pressing abortion restrictions for fear of alienating women and younger voters. He didn’t name any specific Republican leaders.
The Texas lawmakers “are courageous because, even within their own party, they aren’t celebrated,” he said. “That is the most apolitical thing you’ll ever see in this life.”
Santorum was ringed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, 20 Texas lawmakers and anti-abortion advocates. Speakers included Christian activist Rick Scarborough, who credited God for providing the “legislative will” in Texas for the bill, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“Abortion began in Texas and my prayer is that abortion will end in Texas,” said Scarborough, who is founder of Vision America, a Lufkin, Texas, group that mobilizes pastors to advocate for Christian causes. “This is a small step towards ending all abortions in America.”
Inside the Capitol, several dozen state troopers lined the hallways leading to the committee room where senators voted for the bill, setting up action by the full Senate. The officers barely outnumbered Capitol visitors, unlike recent days and nights in which thousands of abortion rights supporters in orange T-shirts and anti-abortion advocates in blue shirts filled the Capitol, yelling, singing and praying, while fueled by pizza, cookies and donuts provided by various advocacy groups.
Hundreds of activists are expected to visit the Capitol tomorrow, prompting Dewhurst to warn that he’d clear the visitor gallery if the crowd gets rowdy. Around midnight on June 25 opponents of the bill screamed so loud that Republicans couldn’t pass the bill before the end of an earlier legislative session. The demonstration helped turn state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, into a national media star after her 11-hour filibuster slowed the bill’s progress.
“We aren’t going to be interrupted in doing the people’s work by an unruly mob,” Dewhurst said.
Among those screaming in the gallery on June 25 was abortion rights supporter Janet Longmore, 61, a retired university professor from Denton, Texas, who has spent seven days at the Capitol over the past three weeks attending rallies, hearings and legislative sessions.
“I’ve talked to dozens of pro-life supporters and some of them have told me they think that all of us on the other side are evil,” Longmore said in interview yesterday at the Capitol cafeteria. “We haven’t changed each other’s minds, but at least we have been able to talk. I’ve realized having one-on-one conversations is lot more important than what’s been going on inside the hearing rooms.”