Texas took a major step toward enacting tough new abortion restrictions on Friday, after a lawmaker cut short an 11-hour attempt to stage a "citizen's filibuster."
Hundreds of people were waiting to speak -- the vast majority of them women opposed to the legislation -- when House Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said the witnesses had become repetitive and he would allow only two more hours of testimony. Normally each witness may testify for three minutes on a bill, and Cook's decision to halt public participation was the first time a chairman had used that prerogative in recent memory.
At stake was a collection of measures to restrict when, where and how a woman may get an abortion in Texas. Cook's committee approved all of the measures on a party-line vote without comment Friday afternoon.
The Republican-backed measures would ban abortions after 20 weeks; the current limit is 24 weeks. They 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 most abortion clinics do not qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, a standard usually reserved for procedures that involve extensive surgery or general anesthesia.
Supporters say the bills would make abortions safer, but abortion-rights groups say they would lead to the shuttering of 37 of the state's 42 abortion clinics, leaving facilities only in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. The Texas Democratic Party, Planned Parenthood and Texas NARAL called on supporters to testify against the bills Thursday night in hopes of slowing them down ahead of a Tuesday deadline.
When Cook finally called an end to the hearing at 3:35 a.m. Friday, more than 200 people remained on the witness list.
"I'm ashamed at what I saw, because people traveled from all over the state, and there were people on both sides of the issue who came to speak about this, but they were shut down," Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said. "They're playing political games with women's health and it's unacceptable.
Republican-controlled legislatures in several states have passed similar measures, and many are tied up in courts.
Rep. Jody Laubenberg, R-Parker, said her bills would protect fetuses after 20 weeks and increase the level of care for women undergoing abortions. She added that "the Legislature should be on the side of life, not death."
Other Republicans, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said they welcomed the closures of abortion clinics as a result of the legislation.
The ban on abortion after 20 weeks includes provisions to protect a woman's health and to allow the abortion of fetuses that cannot survive outside the womb.
Democrats complained that the ban on abortion after 20 weeks does not include exceptions for rape, incest or the mental health of the mother. It does include provisions to protect a woman's health and to allow the abortion of fetuses that cannot survive outside the womb.
Austin resident Michelle Benavides said she has bipolar disorder and once obtained an abortion because carrying the child would have required her to stop her psychotropic 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."
Laubenberg said she would not accept such an exception.
"I think the woman's mental health can be very subjective," she said.