Women's rights on the line in Texas

Jamie Stuart and Laura Taylor report from the Texas state capital on the GOP drive to ram through an anti-abortion bill--and the protesters who are determined to stop them.

Protesters crowd around the Texas Capitol building to protest a harsh anti-abortion bill (David Weaver)Protesters crowd around the Texas Capitol building to protest a harsh anti-abortion bill (David Weaver)

THE BATTLE lines in the struggle over a women's right to choose abortion run through the Texas state Capitol building--inside and outside.

On Monday, July 8, a Texas state Senate committee held a hearing on one of the most restrictive anti-abortion proposals anywhere--the latest legislative step toward passing a bill that the right wing around the country is looking to. But the easy road the anti-choice bigots thought they'd find has been blocked again and again by grassroots resistance.

Their measure didn't pass during the state legislature's regular session, and it failed during a special session because of what's become known around the world as "the people's filibuster": opposition by Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, backed up by hundreds of protesters, who made it impossible for the state Senate to pass the legislation by a midnight deadline on June 24.

Now, Republican Gov. Rick Perry is trying again. He called a second special session, with the anti-abortion bill as the main order of business. Once again, the contempt of Perry and the Republicans was on display on Monday in another committee hearing where they did their best to silence the voices of women who want to defend their rights.

Outside the Capitol, the battle was reflected in competing demonstrations. After weeks of being vastly outnumbered by pro-choice mobilizations, the right wingers organized a rally in support of the anti-abortion measure. Speakers included perennial Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, reality show stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, and Robert James Jeffress Jr., a Dallas-area pastor who is vehemently anti-gay and has claimed that Islam "promotes pedophilia."

The bigots got about 1,000 people to their rally, but they were outnumbered by a pro-choice demonstration called to coincide with the Senate committee hearings. Supporters of women's rights took to the streets of Austin to send their message far and wide--before returning to the area around the Capitol to confront to anti-choice crowd. Women's rights activists chanted and used the people's mic until the bigots were drowned out and driven away.

The abortion rights demonstration on Monday was only the latest in a series of protests that have definitely been the largest mobilizations for women's rights in Texas history. And there's more still to come: July 15 will see another all-out mobilization in Austin of women and men determined to stop the right-wing assault--and supporters of the right to choose around the country are planning solidarity protests to stand with Texas women.

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THE ANTI-abortion proposal--known during the second special session as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 2--would effectively ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, with no exceptions for mental health, rape or incest.

It would also require abortion-providing facilities to meet the state's regulations for ambulatory surgical centers. This restriction would shut down existing abortion providers across the state--only five clinics, all located in the east third of the state, meet those regulations. In a state as large as Texas, that means women in the Rio Grande Valley would have to travel up to 600 miles to get to a clinic that provides abortions, no matter how early or late their pregnancy is.

These drastic restrictions sparked a spirited resistance from the start of the first special legislative session. When a House committee held a hearing on the bill, huge numbers of Texas women and men turned out, providing hours of testimony. Nevertheless, the state House passed the legislation, sending it to the Senate, where it was due to come up for a vote on June 25, the last day of the special session.

As the Capitol building filled with pro-choice women and men wearing orange, Sen. Wendy Davis attempted to filibuster the bill, speaking for more than 11 hours in an attempt to run out the clock and prevent a vote.

The Republicans' legislative maneuvering seemed likely to halt Davis' filibuster just in time for a vote before midnight. That's when the "people's filibuster" took over.

Pro-choice supporters in the Senate gallery used their voices to make a "wall of sound," screaming for 15 minutes and longer until the special session ended at midnight. Those in the gallery were supported by thousands inside the Capitol rotunda and outside the statehouse. The chants of "Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide!" rang out for hours, even after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst declared the anti-abortion bill a lost cause, thanks to the actions of "an unruly mob."

Gov. Perry, however, wasted no time in calling a second special session, this one 30 days long, in another attempt to pass the bill.

Perry tried to justify the session by claiming that Texans are in favor of the anti-abortion bill. That's not true--a majority of Texans oppose it. Beyond that, 80 percent of Texans oppose the abortion bill being brought up in a special session, calling Perry's words--"[T]he citizens of our state have made crystal clear their priorities for our great state"--into question.

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THE PRO-choice resistance has risen to the challenge during this second special session.

On July 1, the first day that the legislature met, more than 12,000 people came out to two separate protests in opposition to the bill. The next day, the House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on HB 2, and more than 3,500 people came to the Capitol to register their position on the bill--two-thirds of them as opponents.

More than 1,000 people indicated they wished to give testimony. But the House committee arbitrarily cut off testimony at midnight after hearing from fewer than 100 people who wished to speak. Those actually called to testify were equally in favor of the bill and against it, despite the overwhelming opposition among those who asked to speak.

Despite having heard from less than 10 percent of those registered to testify, the committee voted 8-3 to approve the bill and send it to the House floor. The legislation had its second reading on Monday and a final vote has been scheduled.

On Monday, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services heard testimony on SB 1. More than 2,000 people showed up--some arriving before dawn--to log a position or sign up to testify. As this article was being written testimony was still continuing, with committee chair Sen. Jane Nelson announcing that she intended to hear from everyone who was in line to speak when it was cut off before 11 a.m. At just two minutes of testimony per person, hearings are expected to continue into the early morning hours.

Why has this piece of legislation galvanized supporters of the right to choose to such an extent? Amelia Long, president of the Lilith Fund, which provides direct financial assistance to women who can't afford abortions, noted that one of the biggest concerns about the abortion restrictions was:

the way that poverty and economic inequality intersect with reproductive access. Obviously, for poor women, it's harder to access any reproductive health care, including abortion, and the effect of this bill would be to further widen this divide. Race and ethnicity also affect access, because wealth is racially stratified, so bills that would limit abortion access disproportionately hurt women of color and poor women.

Many women who came to the Capitol on Monday to testify or to register their opposition had personal stories to tell. Zany from Austin said the legislation:

would definitely affect me negatively. I have no health insurance. I am still working to find a full-time job with benefits, so passing this bill would make it impossible for me and women like me to get the health care that we need. The state shouldn't make decisions for my body. I'm fully capable of doing that myself.

Another issue with the SB 1 and HB 2 is that the closing of clinics won't just limit access to abortion for many women, but also access to other basic health care. As Jackie from Austin said, "This legislation would affect low-income and rural women who would not be able to access cancer screenings and pap smears--women's health care in general."

The competing rallies of pro- and anti-choice forces showed which side the energy is on at the grassroots.

Despite big-name speakers, the anti-abortion rally had only about 1,000 people. And it's not clear how many of those were from Texas, given that Students For Life bussed in anti-choice youth from four states along the East Coast to bolster their weak forces.

Supporters of reproductive freedom had counter-arguments ready for the right wing's myths and distortions.

"I think it's really important for women to have control over their lives," said Carly from Austin. "Abortion is especially important, considering that birth control is not affordable and accessible for all women in Texas, along with the state of sexual education. When it's your body that's being affected, you have to have control."

Many people at the pro-choice march were thinking about the voices not being heard by legislators inside the statehouse. Dave Cortez from El Paso said, "I've heard a lot of people speaking about border communities and rural communities, and I'm just here to support some of my allies and comrades from those communities who are trying to get their voices heard today."

There will be more protests to come in the next days. One of the biggest will be next Monday, July 15--now set as a national day of action.

In addition to other activities during the day on July 15, activists in Austin will gather at the Capitol at 8 p.m. Meanwhile, pro-choice activists across the country are organizing solidarity rallies in their own locations.

With similar anti-choice bills being passed in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio, it's clear that the struggle for abortion rights must be a national one. But Texas activists are leading the way toward a new feminist movement that will begin--as Jessica Valenti wrote in the Nation--with "a defiant stand, not a defensive crouch."