Texas Senate give initial OK to abortion proposal

Associated Press
Abortion rights advocates fill the rotunda of the State Capitol as the Senate nears the vote on Friday night, July 12, 2013. Texas senators were wrapping up debate on sweeping abortion restrictions Friday night and were poised to vote on a measure after weeks of protests. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Senate late Friday gave initial approval to sweeping abortion restrictions and was poised to take a final vote and send the proposal to the governor.

The votes followed an hourslong debate and weeks of protests that drew thousands to the Capitol and made Texas the focus of the national abortion debate.

Republicans were expected to use their majority to pass the bill, and Republican Gov. Rick Perry has said he will sign it. But Democrats had sought to soften it and enter into the legislative record material that could help in a court battle.

Democrats have called the GOP proposal unnecessary and unconstitutional. Republicans said the measure was about protecting women and unborn children.

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 a proposal that has put Texas at the center of the nation's abortion debate.

After hours of debate, senators gave closing remarks. Sen. Wendy Davis, whose filibuster helped derail the same bill weeks ago, was the last to speak for the Democrats. The Senate's leader, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, then allowed two Republicans to speak before voting began.

Earlier, four women who tried to chain themselves to a railing in the gallery were arrested. One woman was successful in chaining herself, prompting a 10-minute recess.

When debate resumed, protesters began loudly singing, "Give choice a chance." Dewhurst told officers to remove them.

Outside the chamber, the crowd grew so loud that troopers were being issued orange earplugs. Protesters were shouting, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as senators gave their closing statements.

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, when a Democratic filibuster and subsequent protest prevented the bill from becoming law.

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. 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.

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. Hegar acknowledged working with anti-abortion groups to draft the legislation. 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.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, said 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."

Dewhurst was determined to keep the vote on track. The Texas Constitution gives him the authority to jail anyone who breaks the chamber's rules of decorum, which stipulate that there can be no demonstrations or attempts to disrupt the Senate's work.

In addition to the jars of suspected urine and feces, officers took paint, glitter, confetti and feminine hygiene products from people seeking to ender the gallery, according to the Department of Public Safety.

The issue has been simmering for months in Texas.

Democrats successfully blocked the bill in the regular legislative session. Then, during the first special session, the Senate didn't take up the bill until the final day. That allowed Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis to use a filibuster to delay a vote. When Republicans rushed to try to pass the bill in the session's final 15 minutes, angry protesters began shouting and screaming from the gallery. Dewhurst could only watch with frustration as a half-dozen state troopers tried to remove more than 450 people.

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.

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Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Jim Vertuno contributed to this report. Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cltomlinson

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