Opponents of the anti-abortion bills in the Capitol rotunda Sunday night. (Nick Swartsell)

UPDATED: By Stifling Debate, Texas House Passes Strict Anti-Abortion Bill


Updated at 11:15 AM: The House has passed SB 5 on a 95-34 vote. The question now is whether Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will try to take up the bill today in the Senate. In order to do that, a rule requiring a 24-hour layout will have to be suspended. That takes a two-thirds vote.

Original: Despite 12 hours of procedural delays by Democrats—and a gallery packed with opponents—the Texas House gave initial approval at 3:23 a.m. Monday to a strict anti-abortion bill. The House is expected to pass the measure, Senate Bill 5, on a final vote later on Monday.

SB 5 would impose some of the harshest anti-abortion restrictions in the nation. It would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. It would require all abortion clinics to refit their facilities to meet ambulatory surgical center standards, a move that health advocates say will be so costly that all but five clinics in the state would close. The bill also would prevent clinicians from prescribing the abortion pill remotely, as they do currently for rural women in early stages of pregnancy. And it would require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic, effectively excluding out-of-state abortion doctors.

Opponents of the bill resisted a vote for hours. From the moment the House gaveled in at 2 p.m. on Sunday to the moment SB 5 passed on second reading early Monday morning, Democrats wielded points of order and parliamentary inquiries with swift regularity. They also offered 13 amendments to the bill, causing the crammed gallery to snicker appreciatively at scripted exchanges between Democrats at the front and back microphones (State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston): “Do you know who will want to see substantial evidence” [regarding fetal pain at 20 weeks]; State Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth): “Who?” State Rep. Wu: “The courts!”)

But it became wearisome. Indeed, before midnight the sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) stopped responding to Democrats’ questions about the bill. In a rare move, Laubenberg continually tabled Democratic amendments without ever coming to the front microphone.

Democrats knew they couldn’t stop the bill from passing, but their goal was simply to delay it long enough to give their colleagues in the Senate a chance to kill the bill with a filibuster. The House version of SB 5 still must return to the Senate for a final vote, and time is running out. The 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry ends on Tuesday, though Perry can call as many sessions as he desires. Senate rules require a 24-hour waiting period before the Senate can debate the bill. So House Democrats hoped to delay SB 5 long enough to give Senate Democrats a chance to filibuster the bill when it returns to the Senate on Tuesday. (Unlike in Washington, Texas Senators hoping to filibuster must talk the entire time.) Every hour that House Democrats delayed on Sunday was one less hour Senate Democrats would have to filibuster.

Republicans knew that time was wasting away. So at 2 a.m., Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) moved to end debate and force a final vote on the bill, on the basis that debate was becoming repetitive. After 20 further minutes of Republican huddling around Speaker Joe Straus’s podium, the motion passed, leaving as many as 15 more Democratic amendments without debate. And despite hours of inventive foot-dragging by Democrats, the House passed SB 5 to a symphony of boos, yells and shouts of “shame!” from the gallery.

In fact, it was the packed gallery that made this bill’s passage especially dramatic. Abortion-rights advocates had started arriving at the Capitol before noon on Sunday. An informal coalition of reproductive rights organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Jane’s Due Process, Whole Woman’s Health, Faith Action Women’s Network, Equality Texas and Planned Parenthood, had spearheaded their mobilization via social media. One campaign message advised:  “Wear ORANGE, bring snacks and plan to stay late!” Many arrived in orange but for those who didn’t, the coalition distributed 1,000 orange t-shirts bearing the logo “Stand With Women”.

By 1.30 p.m., a Planned Parenthood spokesperson said, all shirts had been handed out. Conversely, anti-abortion organizers suggested that their crowd wear blue. Yet orange-clad opponents of the bill kept arriving and once the gallery filled, the “orange army” spilled out into the lobby, rotunda and eventually, into rooms in the Capitol annex. Judging by the counts of orange and blue in the gallery, the abortion rights advocates outnumbered the anti-abortion crowd by 10 to one. Even at 9 p.m., more than 150 people in orange waited to enter the gallery. By 2 a.m., the Texas Democratic Party, which helped organize the turnout, announced that there were still more than 200 orange shirts watching the proceedings in the House chamber.

This meant that there were many activists present to witness Rep. Laubenberg’s gaffe earlier in the day. When State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) asked that the 20-week abortion ban exempt victims of rape and incest, the bill sponsor dismissed her. Women who had been raped could go to a hospital and get a rape kit, Laubenberg said, suggesting that the rape kit be used to have the woman “cleaned out.” With lashings of snark, activists tweeted about her misunderstanding of the issues that affect the women whose lives she hoped to legislate.

Yet despite yesterday’s political theater, Rep Laubenberg’s colleagues, as well as some Democrats, still approved her bill by large majority. This morning, Democrats have delayed their return to the House for a third-reading vote on the bill.