AUSTIN, TX - The Texas Senate passed sweeping new abortion restrictions late Friday, sending them to Republican Gov. Rick Perry to sign into law after weeks of protests and rallies that drew thousands of people to the Capitol and made the state the focus of the national abortion debate.
Republicans used their large majority in the Texas Legislature to pass the bill nearly three weeks after a filibuster by Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis and an outburst by abortion-rights activists in the Senate gallery disrupted a deadline vote June 25.
Called back for a new special session by Perry, lawmakers took up the bill again as thousands of supporters and opponents held rallies and jammed the Capitol to testify at public hearings. As the Senate took its final vote, protesters in the hallway outside the chamber chanted, "Shame! Shame! Shame!"
Democrats have called the GOP proposal unnecessary and unconstitutional. Republicans said the measure was about protecting women and unborn children.
House Bill 2 would require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, allow abortions only in surgical centers, limit where and when women may take abortion-inducing pills and ban abortions after 20 weeks.
Abortion-rights supporters say the bill will close all but five abortion clinics in Texas, leaving large areas of the vast state without abortion services. Only five out of 42 existing abortion clinics meet the requirements to be a surgical center, and clinic owners say they can't afford to upgrade or relocate.
The circus-like atmosphere in the Texas Capitol marked the culmination of weeks of protests, the most dramatic of which came June 25 in the final minutes of the last special legislative session, Davis' filibuster and subsequent protest prevented the bill from becoming law.
The Senate's debate took place between a packed gallery of demonstrators, with anti-abortion activists wearing blue and abortion-rights supporters wearing orange. Security was tight, and state troopers reported confiscating bottles of urine and feces as they worked to prevent another attempt to stop the Republican majority from passing the proposal.
Those arrested or removed from the chamber included four women who tried to chain themselves to a railing in the gallery. One of the women was successful in chaining herself, prompting a 10-minute recess.
When debate resumed, protesters began loudly singing, "Give choice a chance. All we are saying is give choice a chance." The Senate's leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, told officers to remove them.
Sen. Glen Hegar of Katy, the bill's Republican author, argued that all abortions, including those induced with medications, should take place in an ambulatory surgical center in case of complications.
Democrats pointed out that childbirth is more dangerous than an abortion and there have been no serious problems with women taking abortion drugs at home. They introduced amendments to add exceptions for cases of rape and incest and to remove some of the more restrictive clauses, but Republicans dismissed all of the proposed changes.
Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, asked why Hegar was pushing restrictions that federal courts in other states had suspended as possibly unconstitutional.
"There will be a lawsuit. I promise you," West said, raising his right hand as if taking an oath.
The bill mirrors restrictions passed in Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kansas, Wisconsin and Arizona. In North Carolina, lawmakers are considering a measure that would allow state health officials to apply standards for ambulatory surgical centers to abortion clinics.
Passing the law in Texas would be a major victory for anti-abortion activists in the nation's second most-populous state. A lawsuit originating in Texas would also likely win a sympathetic hearing at the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Democrats see in the protests an opportunity that could help them break a 20-year statewide losing streak. They believe Republicans have overreached in trying to appease their base and alienated suburban women, a constituency that helped President Barack Obama win re-election.
"In the long run, all they have done is built a committed group of people across this state who are outraged about the treatment of women and the lengths to which this Legislature will go to take women's health care away," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, said during the debate that it was clear the bill was part of national conservative agenda attempting to ban abortion and infringe on women's rights one state at a time. He pressed Hegar on why the Texas Medical Association,
Texas Hospital Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology opposed the bill.
He asked Hegar how he could ignore these experts.
"There are differences in the medical profession," Hegar insisted, rejecting the criticism. "I don't believe this legislation will majorly impede the doctor-patient relationship."
Sen. Bob Deuell, a Greenville Republican and a doctor, defended the bill, saying abortion clinics "had not maintained the proper standard of care."