Texas politicians were due to give formal approval on Wednesday to a controversial abortion bill, two weeks after a marathon filibuster frustrated its progress and prompted protests against the proposals.
After nearly ten hours of impassioned debate in Austin, the state’s house of representatives voted in favour of the plans at around 9.30pm local time on Tuesday. The tally of 98-49 was largely along party lines. A second vote was scheduled for Wednesday after a final reading, then the legislation will go to the senate, which also has a strong Republican majority.
The progress of the bill has received national attention after Wendy Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, talked without a break for almost eleven hours in an effort to filibuster the bill. Chanting from the rowdy public gallery then made a vote impossible before the deadline, set for midnight on 25 June.
It turned Davis into a celebrated advocate for women’s reproductive rights, but the Democrats’ success was short-lived.
In response, Rick Perry, the Republican governor, recalled legislators for a special session that can last up to 30 days. The bill swiftly passed out of the committee phase last week, and with time on the Republicans’ side, the party’s large majorities in the Texas senate and house of representatives make it virtually impossible for Democrats to block the plans a second time.
As well as banning abortion after 20 weeks, the bill would require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, and mandate that clinics be classed as ambulatory surgical centres. Proponents claim the measures would make abortions safer. Critics argue that they would result in the closure of all but five of Texas’ 42 abortion clinics, meaning that women living in rural areas would have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion.
Supporters and opponents of the bill again thronged the building on Tuesday and those in the public gallery were repeatedly warned that the entire audience would be ejected if there was any kind of disturbance. Hundreds of people had registered to testify during the committee phase.
Davis conceded that efforts to stop the bill are likely to fail. “It will be very difficult because unfortunately the voices that have been here crying out against this bill are not going to be heard,” she told CNN. “But I don’t think it’s the end. It’s the beginning of a battle line.”
Democrats tried to stall and amend the bill on Tuesday, proposing numerous measures that would have watered it down, such as an exemption to the 20-week limit for rape and incest victims. That was rejected.
Jason Villalba, a Republican representative, told the chamber during the debate, which was live-streamed online by the Texas Tribune, that “our intentions are honourable because we care for and fight for human baby lives.” Jodie Laubenberg, the Republican author of the bill, refused attempts to alter it. She said that a five-month-old foetus can feel pain, making the 20-week limit appropriate, and said it was important to raise the standards of clinics.
Donna Howard, a Democrat, said it was “embarrassing that we are doing this” and urged colleagues to reform the state’s public health policy. Texas has some of the highest teenage pregnancy, and teenage repeat pregnancy, rates in the US.
Another Democrat, Mary Gonzalez, said that she knew someone who died while trying to get an illegal abortion in Mexico and cautioned that the result of the bill would be to endanger women’s health because they would seek black-market abortions. Democrats also pointed out that many clinics that could be forced to close if unable to upgrade to the proposed higher standards offer a wide variety of health and family planning services, not only abortions.
After it passes through the senate, Perry will then sign off on the legislation, but that is unlikely to be the end of the wrangling. Legal challenges at the federal level could delay the implementation of the new regulations for months or years.
Other states that have tried to introduce 20-week limits on abortions have become embroiled in legal arguments about whether the restriction is constitutional, since the point of “viability” for a foetus is generally considered to be 24 weeks.
Last Friday, Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, signed a bill requiring abortion providers to have hospital admission privileges within 30 miles of their clinic. It was scheduled to come into effect yesterday but Planned Parenthood won a federal court order delaying the law’s introduction.
William Conley, a district judge, said in his ruling that there was “a troubling lack of justification for the hospital admitting privileges requirement”.