Texas sneak attack on abortion rights

Katie Feyh reports on protests mobilized outside the Texas Capitol building against a special legislative session that is considering strict anti-abortion proposals.

Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Texas state Capitol building (NARAL Pro-choice Texas)Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Texas state Capitol building (NARAL Pro-choice Texas)

THE 83RD session of the Texas legislature was largely regarded as one of bipartisan compromise, during which some of the worst bills containing assaults on women's reproductive rights never made it out of committee. But as of last week, the legislature has been meeting in a special session called by Gov. Rick Perry to hear business that didn't make it out onto the floor of the House and Senate.

Along with redistricting, transportation and sentencing guidelines under which some juveniles would be sentenced to life without parole for capital crimes, the special session heard four Senate bills, which failed in the regular session, that aim to roll back women's access to safe, legal abortion.

One bill would ban abortion after 20 weeks with a narrow exception to avoid the "death or substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman," or if any anomaly would result in the death of the born infant "not later than minutes to hours after birth," regardless of treatment.

A second bill would require doctors to administer abortion drugs like RU-486 in person and provide a follow-up appointment in person, which would substantially hinder those doctors who must travel in order to make their services accessible to women in rural and other underserved areas.

A third bill would require all abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform their procedures, again restricting abortion access for women in underserved areas or in areas where hospital owners oppose abortion.

And a fourth bill would require all facilities where abortions are provided be certified as "ambulatory surgical centers," the requirements of which would limit the number of facilities in Texas authorized to provide abortions to five, all located in major cities, again removing the ability for poor and rural Texas women to access abortion procedures.

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EACH OF these bills is horrible in and of themselves. The worst of all is Senate Bill 5, an omnibus bill that contains all the provisions of the other bills, except for the 20-week ban and its "fetal pain" provision. SB 5 got out of committee last week, in spite of testimony against it--and protests during which women wore 1950s and 1960s garb in the Senate chamber to remind the public of the time before abortion was legalized.

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and NARAL Texas have been on hand at the hearings to protest, and a rally sponsored by Faith Action for Women in Need was held Monday evening. Protests have been small to date, with most abortion supporters packing the legislative chambers, in orange T-shirts, in Mad Men attire and even women with tape over their mouths in silent protest.

On June 20, SB 5 moved to the Texas House for debate. Though the 20-week ban didn't pass the Senate, it was reintroduced in House hearings. Abortion rights groups called for supporters to fill the House committee chamber and testify in hopes that great numbers would run out the clock on the special session.

Hundreds of abortion rights supporters packed the hearing on Thursday night. Testimony continued late into the night, with women from multiple generations and from all over Texas telling their personal abortion stories, arguing for greater, rather than restricted, access to abortion services.

Some called out politicians for their hypocrisy on the question of life, namely championing the unborn while blithely executing the living. Testimony underscored the burdens these bills would place upon poor, working and rural women especially.

Around midnight, the committee chair warned that he would close testimony because it had "become repetitive." The chamber erupted in protest. One woman was led off by police when she took to the microphone to chastise the committee. Testimony continued until nearly 4 a.m. before the House committee closed the hearing.

The hearing was closed without a vote, which is good news for now. But they can return to approve the bills--both the omnibus and the 20-week "fetal pain" ban--before the special session ends on Tuesday.

Many were caught off-guard when these bills failed in regular session, and it has been difficult to mobilize supporters quickly to protest the special session. But activists are poised to see what happens next and to take whatever action is possible to stop Texas' backdoor attack on women's health and reproductive rights.