The Republican chairman of a House committee considering new abortion regulations in Texas told more than 300 women early Friday that they would not be allowed to testify against the bill because it had become too repetitive.
Corsicana Rep. Byron Cook's comment triggered outrage among the women, dozens of whom traveled for hours to reach Austin and had waited more than 12 hours to provide their testimony.
"The testimony has been impassioned, but it has become repetitive, so I am going to only allow another hour of testimony on this bill," Cook said shortly after midnight. The 200 women in the hearing room and more than 100 waiting outside roared their disapproval, prompting him to suspend the hearing and retreat into a back room.
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When Cook reconvened the hearing, he agreed to hear three more hours of testimony from another 50 women, after which he left the bills without a vote.
Austin resident Ellen Sweets told Cook she opposed the abortion measures and his decision not to hear any more testimony.
"This is an example of what happens when religious zealotry has a head-on collision with irresponsible government," she said.
Cook was trying to stop the abortion-rights supporters from further delaying a vote on the new restriction on when, where and how women may obtain an abortion as time was running out on the special legislative session.
Planned Parenthood, Texas NARAL and the Texas Democratic Party called on people from across Texas to stall the bills for another day in the hope it would give Senate Democrats a chance to stage an official filibuster in the Senate on Tuesday night, when the session ends. Supporters from across the state ordered pizzas, drinks and cookies delivered to the women waiting to testify, while activists projected "End the war on Women" on the side of the building.
"We believe the community's voice needs to be heard on these bills, and are prepared to stay at the Capitol for as long as necessary," the Democratic Party said in a statement.
Anti-abortion groups discouraged members from testifying out of fear that the measure won't pass before Tuesday's deadline, but some leaders spoke in favor of the measures saying they will reduce the 77,000 abortions in Texas every year.
The House State Affairs Committee took up the bills after the Senate passed the same measures on Tuesday night. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said it was part of his anti-abortion agenda. The most controversial measure would ban abortions after 20 weeks, while the current limit is 24 weeks.
Texas would also require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, and only allow abortions in surgical facilities. Many private hospitals will not grant privileges to a doctor who performs abortions and 37 out of the state's 42 abortion clinics do not qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, a high standard usually reserved for surgical procedures.
Laubenberg said her proposed 20-week ban included exemptions to protect a woman's health and for fetuses that could not survive outside the womb.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, expressed concern that the exemption for the health of the mother required her to "face immediate injury or death" before a doctor can act and did not include mental health problems.
Michelle Benavides, of Austin, said she opposed the bill because there was no provision for mental illness. She said she has bi-polar disorder and she once obtained an abortion because carrying the child would have required her to stop her medication and place her life in danger.
"I don't feel any regret and I don't feel guilt," she said. "The fact that this bill makes no provisions for mental health is wrong. ... Mental illness kills pregnant women when they commit suicide."
Farrar said the Legislature had not contemplated her circumstances and it was an example of why "we should not be practicing medicine."
"I think the woman's mental health can be very subjective," Laubenberg said.