UPDATED: Extraordinary Turnout for Citizen’s Filibuster of Anti-Abortion Bills

Hundreds testify against bills that would restrict abortion in Texas.
Nick Swartsell
Hundreds testify against bills that would restrict abortion in Texas.

Updated at 2:05 PM: 

Early this afternoon, the House State Affairs committee met for 10 minutes to vote on HB 60, HB 6 and SB 5. The committee approved HB 60, the omnibus abortion bill, HB 16, the standalone 20-week ban, and a SB 5 substitute that has the 20-week ban added. The meeting had been called with only two hours’ notice and was held in a tiny room without a live video feed or seating for members of the public or media. Abortion-rights activists on Twitter were outraged. As one #HB60 tweet read: “After hours of public testimony, the House State Affairs Committee steamrolls the rights of Texas in minutes”.

All three bills will hit the House floor on Sunday.

Original story: Yesterday and into the early hours of the morning, hundreds of people registered to speak for and against House Bill 60 and House Bill 16, both of which would severely restrict women’s access to abortion services in Texas.

HB 60 bans abortion after 20 weeks gestation, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic, prevents clinicians from prescribing the abortion pill remotely and requires clinics to make costly upgrades by becoming ambulatory surgical care centers. HB 16 contains just the 20-week abortion ban, and mirrors the clause removed from Senate Bill 5, which passed on Tuesday.

In an extraordinary feat of grassroots organizing by abortion-rights groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Planned Parenthood, the Lilith Fund as well as the Texas Democratic Party, bill opponents traveled from across Texas to be at the committee hearing for what organizers called a “citizen’s filibuster.”  With so little time left on the clock for the legislative special session (it expires on Tuesday), abortion-rights activists hoped to block the passage of the bills by forcing the committee to hear hours of public testimony.

Approximately 700 members of the public registered to speak. People waiting to testify—overwhelmingly in opposition to the bills—filled the committee room and a large overflow room as well as lobbies and corridors.

Filibuster organizers asked people to tell the committee how the anti-abortion bills would affect them individually. Testimonies were heartfelt and covered the full gamut of personal experience: those who had had abortions, who remembered the world before legal abortion, who had been raped, whose poor health meant that a pregnancy could be life-threatening.

Anti-abortion activists also testified in favor of the bills, some recounting for the committee their own negative experiences of abortion.

As the long night drew on, there was something of a carnival atmosphere in the overflow room where the “filibuster army” gathered to watch the hearing via video feed. While the committee room audience had to comply with procedural protocol (no applause, no speaking, no photos), the crowd in the overflow room clapped and whooped for each abortion-rights speaker who approached the mic. Live-tweets of the hearing using the #HB60 tag replayed the proceedings in real-time to a worldwide audience, allowing organizers to crowd-source donations of pizza and coffee for the flagging speakers.

But after hearing almost 11 hours of testimony, the State Affairs committee finally adjourned at 3:45am, despite what NARAL Pro-Choice Texas described on its Facebook page as “hundreds of people who had come from across the state to testify who had not yet been allowed to speak.”

HB60 and HB16 were left pending in committee. The House State Affairs committee must now meet again to approve the bills in advance of a full House vote. If passed by the House, the House and Senate will then have to resolve the differences between the bills. Abortion-rights activists hope that these deliberations will be so drawn out that Democratic Senators can conduct an official filibuster on Tuesday, thereby killing this special session’s anti-abortion bills.

So did HB60’s nightlong hearing buy opponents enough time to see the bill quashed by timing? To see if the citizen’s filibuster worked, we may have to wait for the Lege’s clock to tick out on Tuesday.

Regardless, Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas said: “As a movement, this was phenomenal and a galvanizing moment for us. I talked to so many young people who said that they had never participated in government before. This is a sign that we’re ready for a change. This is a sign of the times.”

Carolyn Jones is a freelance writer based in Austin. Read more of her work at carolynjoneswrites.com.

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Published at 10:31 am CST