Texas women won't stand down

Laura Taylor reports on the ongoing battle for women's reproductive rights in Texas after the state House and Senate passed a draconian anti-abortion law.

Abortion rights activists crowd around the Texas state Capitol building (David Weaver)Abortion rights activists crowd around the Texas state Capitol building (David Weaver)

IT WAS hard to describe the outrage felt by abortion rights supporters in Texas and around the country after state legislators there put their anti-abortion agenda over the lives and health of women--and voted in favor of legislation that will drastically reduce women's reproductive rights.

Over the last month, pro-choice activists have transformed the state Capitol into a massive protest site, flooding the rotunda and gallery to make their demand heard that the Texas legislature stop eroding their reproductive rights. And even though the Senate approved the anti-choice bill on July 12, clearing the way for Republican Gov. Rick Perry to sign it into law on July 15, Texas women will not be silenced.

They're calling on supporters all over the country to protest along with them in a National Day of Action to Defend Reproductive Rights on July 15. The day of action will be a next step in what abortion rights supporters hope will be a new movement against the right wing's war on women's reproductive rights.

This struggle began heating up in June when Perry called a special legislative session to pass the draconian anti-choice bill, which not only bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but also requires clinics and doctors providing abortions to meet a range of unnecessary standards.

These standards, including requiring clinics that provide abortions to become ambulatory surgical centers, will force all but five abortion-providing clinics to close. Because the five remaining clinics are located in the eastern third of the state, women from West Texas will have to travel up to 600 miles to have access to abortions.

The bill didn't go anywhere during the regular session of the legislature, but Perry knew he would have more luck in a special session, when many of the rules designed to protect the minority are suspended.

What you can do

Texas activists are calling on supporters all over the country to protest along with them in a National Day of Action to Defend Reproductive Rights on July 15.

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WHAT PERRY and the anti-choice politicians didn't expect was the outpouring of anger and activism from thousands of Texas women and men demanding that the government not restrict their right to reproductive health care.

All this led to the "people's filibuster" on the final day of the special session on June 24, in which protesters in the gallery and the Capitol rotunda took over for a filibuster by Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis and yelled at the top of their lungs long enough to prevent the bill from passing by the midnight deadline.

Undeterred this outpouring of protest, Perry quickly called another special session to try to pass the bill. Though many people were no doubt exhausted from the activism during the first special session, pro-choice activists continued to come out in droves during the second special session. They arrived at the Capitol before dawn to fill the House and Senate galleries, they shared their personal experiences about abortion at committee hearings, and they attended rallies and marches throughout the session.

Anti-choice legislators ignored the 80 percent of Texans who thought such legislation shouldn't be brought up in a special session--and rammed the bill through the legislative process.

At every step, they had to shut down the voices of those opposed to the bill. In the House State Affairs Committee hearings, testimony was abruptly cut off at midnight after less than 10 percent of the more than 1,000 people who wished to testify were heard.

The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services used a different tactic to shut down debate, announcing at a 10 a.m. hearing that only those in line by 11 a.m. would be able to testify. This prevented many people who were working at the time from being able to testify, but despite these restrictions, 357 people gave testimony on the bill, with 218 opposed to it.

In addition, pro-choice women and men came to the Capitol throughout the day to formally register their opposition to the bill, with 2,181 registering against and 1,355 in support.

On July 10, the bill reached the House floor, where opponents of the measure proposed 22 amendments aimed at ensuring that women would retain access to reproductive health care. These amendments included measures to require evidence-based sex education in public schools, rather than abstinence-only, and to extend benefits to children put into foster care by women not able to access abortion.

Playing on the bill's supporters claims of being "pro-life," state Rep. Harold Dutton proposed an amendment that would have repealed the death penalty, a particularly symbolic measure given that the state carried out its 500th execution on June 26--the same week that the first special session ended.

However, the House tabled all of these amendments without serious consideration from anti-choice legislators, who approved the bill 96-49 on its final reading on Wednesday, July 10. This action sent the bill to the Senate, which took it up when it reconvened on Friday at 2 p.m.

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ACTIVISTS ON both sides prepared for this final showdown, lining up as early as 3 a.m. for space in the Senate gallery. By the time the gallery opened at 1 p.m., hundreds of people were part of a line that stretched from the doors outside the third-floor gallery down through the hallways on the first floor.

In addition to those in line, hundreds more gathered in the Capitol rotunda and throughout the building. While some anti-choice activists were present in their blue T-shirts, they were continually outnumbered by the pro-choice protesters in orange.

Also out in force that day was the Department of Public Safety (DPS), whose officers searched the bags of everyone entering the Senate gallery and confiscated items they claimed could be thrown at legislators. This included taking away granola bars, sugar packs and even tampons from those planning to sit in the gallery for hours to watch the debate. DPS also stopped people from bringing fliers into the Capitol itself, preventing activists from spreading the word about future events.

Those with conceal-and-carry permits, however, were still allowed to bring handguns into the gallery.

When the Senate debate got underway by mid-afternoon, hundreds watched the proceedings from multiple overflow rooms, while others gathered in the Capitol rotunda to make their voices heard. There seemed to be a continual battle between pro-choice oranges and anti-choice blues for who would control the center of the rotunda, but the pro-choice side was larger and more active throughout the day.

Activists did several banner drops in the rotunda, with large banners in English and Spanish reading "My Choice" and "We Will Not Be Silenced." Hundreds of pieces of paper in the shape of footprints were also dropped from the upper floors of the rotunda, each one representing the death of a woman who was not able to access abortion because of this bill.

Perhaps most extraordinary was the energy and stamina of pro-choice activists in the rotunda, who chanted nearly non-stop from 2 p.m. until well after midnight. The crowd also sang multiple renditions of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"--a move that Twisted Sister's Dee Snider expressed his approval for on Twitter.

Laura Brady, who works at Austin Community College and is an active union member, explained why she felt compelled to come out to the Capitol:

It's infuriating and insulting to watch the past 40 years of progress be so aggressively rolled back by those least affected by a bill like House Bill 2. I went to the Capitol not because I believed we could stop the bill from passing, but because I felt the spark of a new movement for reproductive justice, and I wanted to be a part of that energy.

Also, I was really mad, and I wanted to yell. A lot. I wanted the senators of the Texas legislation to hear the enraged voices of the people they so carelessly disregarded. If this bill was passing, it wasn't passing quietly.

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WHILE ACTIVISTS made their voices heard outside the Senate chambers, legislators debated the bill inside. As in the House, pro-choice Senators proposed 20 amendments to the bill in hopes of preserving some access to reproductive health care.

Particularly contentious was an amendment offered by Sen. Carlos Uresti, who proposed that child victims of rape and incest be exempted from the 20-week ban. Sen. Glenn Hegar, the bill's sponsor, openly opposed this amendment, based not on the exception itself but on concerns that it would delay the bill's passage. The Senate rejected the amendment in an 18-12 vote.

Ultimately, the Senate rejected all proposed amendments and moved toward a vote. As they did, several women attempted to chain themselves to the balcony railing while singing "All we are saying is give us a choice." The women revealed white garments doused in red, representing the women that will be hurt and die as a result of these abortion restrictions.

As the evening drew on and a vote drew closer, pro-choice activists continued to arrive at the Capitol, chanting and booing loudly enough that their voices could be heard in the Senate chambers. DPS eventually restricted access to the rotunda and to the Capitol itself, but the hundreds of protesters already inside the Capitol remained vigilant, chanting "Our bodies! Our lives! Our right to decide!" and "Not the church, not the state! Women must decide their fate!"--as well as loud cries of "Shame!" as word of arrests traveled to the rotunda.

Tiffani Bishop, the lead organizer for Get Equal in Central Texas, explained:

My experience at the Capitol can only be described as surreal. We watched as those in support of this bill failed to answer simple questions or back up their claims with science or medicine. We watched as reasonable amendment after reasonable amendment was tabled. We watched as our rights were stripped away, and I hope they watched as we gathered by the thousands to march and rally against the passage of HB 2.

The mood remained tense as senators gave their final remarks on the bill, before calling for a vote on the second reading of the bill at just before midnight. The Senate immediately adjourned and reconvened just minutes later, passing the bill on a third and final vote.

Activists outside the Senate chambers and inside the rotunda screamed and chanted in protest, with some outside the chamber doors being dragged out by DPS for sitting down. Though no protesters were seen engaging in violent civil disobedience, one protester, Joshua Pineda, was sent to the hospital after a member of DPS slammed his head on the ground.

After the bill's passage, protesters were ushered out of the building by DPS, where they rallied briefly and vowed to continue the fight. Laura Brady noted that though the bill ultimately passed, the struggle isn't over:

I left the Capitol rotunda physically exhausted, but completely jazzed to continue the fight and push the movement forward. It was a radicalizing experience for all those involved, and that's a beautiful thing to witness firsthand.

Late on Friday night, activists were already planning the next steps, beginning with the National Day of Action to Defend Reproductive Rights on July 15. With rallies planned in 22 cities across the country, the day of actions gives the pro-choice movement in Texas the opportunity to stand in solidarity with those in Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina who face similar assaults on their reproductive choices.

In Austin, activists will return to the Capitol on Monday for a rally at 7 p.m., followed by a march through downtown Austin.

Pro-choice activists may have lost their battle to prevent the passage of HB 2, but the fight is far from over. This past month has seen the largest actions in decades in Texas for reproductive choice, and those who have joined the movement aren't ready to give up yet.