Two years ago, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring that women seeking abortions first have a sonogram. If it's early in a pregnancy, the law would require submitting to a transvaginal sonogram, with a wand inserted into the vagina. Even though a similar measure subsequently stirred national controversy in Virginia, prompting its defeat, progressives in Texas could barely mount a fight. Passage was inevitable, everyone knew, and the cause quixotic—because, after all, this was Texas.
That era may be over. For the past several days, activists have been waging a pitched battle in Austin against Senate Bill 5, a measure that would severely restrict abortions after 20 weeks and close most of the state’s abortion clinics. Since Thursday night, hundreds of activists have been protesting, packing galleries and committee hearings and every spare nook of the capitol. The intensity of the public outcry is notable in a state known for low voter turnout and a vastly outnumbered Democratic Party. With the session ending on Tuesday night, if lawmakers and activists can keep up the pressure, they may be able to kill the bill.
Texas’s regular legislative session ended last month, but governors can call special sessions to address specific “emergency” legislation. At first, Rick Perry called this one to approve new redistricting maps. It was only halfway through the month-long gathering that he added abortion restrictions to the agenda.
A hearing on Thursday in the House State Affairs Committee set off the clock-ticking drama. More than 600 pro-choice advocates arrived to voice their opposition to the clinic regulations and the 20-week ban. The activists made up 92 percent of those who signed up to testify; they called their effort a “citizen filibuster.” The chair began to get restless with the testimony, calling it “repetitive,” and eventually cut off debate—but not until 4 a.m. The committee approved the legislation and sent it to the floor.
By Sunday, when the House convened to debate and vote, the fight had reached a fever pitch. The House had multiple bills, but because of the time crunch decided to focus on Senate Bill 5. The measure requires that all abortions, including those performed by giving a woman a pill, be performed in clinics that meet surgical standards—a requirement normally reserved for surgical procedures that require incision. That requirement would prompt the closure of more than 30 clinics across the state; only five clinics in Texas currently meet the “surgical ambulatory care” standard. The measure also has an outsized impact on rural women, since it requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital within a 30-mile radius.
The House version of the bill adds a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks, unless the life of the mother is in danger or the fetus has birth defects so severe that it could die. The addition of the abortion ban means the bill must go back to the Senate for approval. With only two days left to complete all business, however, that gave House Democrats a chance to delay the bill and give their colleagues in the Senate a chance at a filibuster to kill it.
Activists flooded the capitol, most clad in burnt orange T-shirts, the color of the University of Texas, reading: “Stand with Texas Women.” They filled the House gallery, outnumbering pro-life advocates who were wearing blue. Allies from other states sent pizzas to keep them fed, and local shops began sending supplies of food and coffee.
Using parliamentary tactics, Democrats successfully delayed consideration of the bill for hours. They submitted more than two dozen amendments designed to showcase the absurdity of the bill. (One would have required a preponderance of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to justify the ban.) When questioned about the lack of support in the medical community for the bill, the sponsor, Republican Representative Jodie Laubenberg, explained that she knew a gynecologist who supported the bill. The Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association, as well as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, all oppose the measure.
Points of order followed amendments as the hours ticked by. In perhaps the most notable exchange, Democratic Representative Senfronia Thompson offered an amendment to exempt rape and incest victims from the ban. She stood with a coat hanger in her hand, and asked her colleagues, “Do you want to return to the coat hanger? Or do you want to give them an option to terminate their pregnancy because they have been raped?”
Laubenberg responded with the latest in a Republican pantheon of spectacular misstatements on abortion: She implied that rape kits prevent pregnancy because “a woman can get cleaned out.” Her remark prompted widespread criticism and mockery from social media. After that, Laubenberg stopped directly responding to amendments. But her lack of knowledge about rape and pregnancy put her in company with a number of U.S. congressmen. During the 2012 election, Missouri’s Congressman Todd Akin argued that women’s bodies had ways of “shutting down” the possibility of pregnancy after a “legitimate rape”; more recently, Arizona’s Trent Franks noted that the odds of pregnancy after rape were “very low.”
The Texas bills are part of a larger national fight. Just last week, the U.S. Congress passed a similar 20-week abortion ban; though the measure has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, it helped showcase the chasm between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. Earlier this year, North Dakota passed the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, outlawing all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which usually occurs around six weeks into pregnancy. That law is currently making its way through litigation. Generally, such measures aren’t faring well in court. Idaho’s 20-week ban was found unconstitutional in March by the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, and in May, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Arizona’s 20-week ban.
The battle in Texas raged on until Republicans cut off debate around 4 a.m. Monday morning, finally passing the bill on the floor for the first time. They returned fewer than three hours later to vote it through again, as required by procedural rules. Later Monday morning, they passed a required “third reading,” which sends the bill to the Senate. However, there’s a 24-hour waiting period before the Senate can take up the bill and pass it in its turn.
That means the bill will reach the Texas Senate on Tuesday morning. Democrats have vowed a filibuster, which would block the bill’s passage. They will only have to hold out until midnight on Tuesday to give reproductive rights supporters a surprising victory in Texas.