Above: Pro-choice activists march down Congress Avenue during the Stand For Life rally at the Capitol Monday night.
Before the sun rose today there was already a blue shirt (anti-abortion) and orange shirt (abortion-rights) line at the south steps of the Capitol waiting for the hearing on the abortion ban bill. The hearing wouldn’t start until 10 a.m. but it didn’t matter as more and more people converged on the Capitol for possibly one of the most controversial bills to be debated in decades at the Legislature.
Senate Bill 1 would ban abortion at 20 weeks gestation and require abortion clinics to make costly upgrades that advocates say would close most of the clinics in the state. The bill has now undergone four boisterous public hearings in the space of four weeks, one spectacular filibuster in a failed special session in June and a jam-packed House committee hearing last week.
Today was no different in the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services though Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), chair of the committee, tried to limit the size of the hearing by holding it in a small hearing room rather than in the Senate chamber, which has public seating for at least 500. She also reduced public testimony time to two minutes each. Consequently, Capitol staffers and state troopers spent a lot of time shuffling witnesses into and out of the public hearing room.
There were plenty of people to shuffle. Although registration to testify opened at 9 this morning, supporters and opponents of the bill began gathering outside the statehouse doors before sunrise. By 11 a.m., when Nelson stopped allowing new witnesses to register, the crowd was at least 1,700 strong snaking around the Capitol extension.
Senators spent the first hour discussing SB1 after Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) outlined the bill. As before, he heard questions from his Democratic colleagues, and as before, he batted their queries away. Requests for evidence to support the claim that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks, to make exceptions for victims of rape or incest, or to consider the concerns of the medical associations went the way of all previous pleas. That is, precisely nowhere.
To mix things up, impassioned anti-abortion physician Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) placed tiny blue and pink sneakers on his desk to symbolize the humans who couldn’t speak for themselves. Later, a bill opponent left a pair of flip-flops on the witness desk to represent the women who would die from unsafe abortions, were SB1 to pass. Some levity came courtesy of Ellen Cooper, the expert witness from the Texas Department of State Health Services, who said that the state inspects abortion clinics every year but only reviews ambulatory surgical care centers (the standard to which SB1 would hold clinics) every three to six years because there are so many of them. Orange-clad audiences in the overflow rooms hooted derisively.
Yet this public hearing was more muted than recent gatherings at the Texas Capitol. The tenor of the movement took on a more ominous note this weekend when the coalition that is organizing bill opponents (now called the Stand With Texas Women Coalition) warned abortion rights activists about safety at the Texas Capitol. Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said that the coalition has become more cautious given the emotionally charged nature of SB1. They became particularly concerned when they learned that anti-choice activists were bussing in from all over the country, and they worried that extreme elements might ignite an already volatile situation. “Knowing that [anti-choice activists] were going to be coming in larger numbers, and they were putting out a nationwide call especially … we don’t know who may be coming in.” As a result, the coalition broadcasted tips to their supporters about staying safe in the face of aggression, harassment or danger if it should arise.
Indeed, the anti-abortion lobby did come out in force today. A rally organized by a host of “pro-life” groups, and headlined by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, promised to be a big draw. Another star speaker, Attorney General Greg Abbott, is considered to be the gubernatorial favorite now that Governor Perry has said he won’t seek re-election. At the same time, a pro-choice march left from the south gates of the Capitol while inside, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services continued to hear testimony.
Sen. Nelson said that the committee would not vote on SB1 until after the full House debate on their version of the bill, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m. The Senate committee also plans to hear testimony from everyone who managed to register before 11 a.m. today. Given the numbers, the Senators may still be sitting at their desks alongside Sen. Deuell’s baby shoes late into the night.