Some Democrats see the abortion row played out in Austin’s statehouse as a turning point for Texas liberals. But with the bill now passed by the state senate, others warn that life will get even harder
Clad in orange or blue as they wait outside the entrance, the long line of punters might be queueing for a sporting event or a concert.
But the 100,000-capacity Longhorns football stadium is a mile away and the nightlife of Sixth Street a few blocks to the south. This is the Texas Capitol in Austin, where a seat in the public gallery of the senate chamber has become the hottest ticket in town thanks to a series of fierce abortion debates that have seized the nation’s attention.
The statehouse steps were filling up again on Friday morning, hours before the Senate’s 2pm start, as activists set up stalls. “I’ve been queueing every day and not been getting in, going to the overspill room like a lot of people,” says Tara Bhattacharya. “Two-and-a-half weeks ago no one knew who the politicians were, and now they’re looked at like they’re rock stars.”
The 33-year-old does not have health insurance and says she cannot afford to get ill, let alone bear the costs of a complicated pregnancy, in a state that offers minimal help and has just passed some of America’s most restrictive abortion laws, banning terminations after 20 weeks and imposing other restrictions and requirements for providers.
“Women are second-class citizens in Texas, if we’re even considered citizens at all,” says Vicki Bishop as she waits in brutal heat to pass through the airport-style security. “I have been an apathetic voter for years – until now.”
People such as Vicki are the foot-soldiers in a battle that is either a “war on women” or a “war on babies”, depending on whether you are one of the orange-clad pro-choice activists or among the anti-abortion crowd, who wear blue. Two speeches inside this vast building turned two women into liberal heroines in an often anti-liberal state. One spoke for 11 hours, another for two minutes.
Like hundreds of others, Sarah Slamen applied to testify last week in front of a senate committee. She did not waste her chance, launching an articulate tirade that quickly went viral on the web. “I’m tired of Republican primary politics, misogyny and greed dominating the state I was born, raised and schooled in,” she began.
“It was destiny that you would discriminate against us to try to force your way inside the bodies of Texas women. Thank you for finally working against us women so publicly and not in the shadows like you’re used to … thank you for being you, Texas legislature. You have radicalised hundreds of thousands of us … women and their allies are coming for you.”
When she started a systematic critique of the politicians sat before her, the 28-year-old was dragged out of the room by a posse of state troopers shortly before her time was up. Not that she missed a beat: “This is my government, ma’am. I will judge you.”
Slamen’s eloquent fury was a sequel of sorts to the marathon efforts of Wendy Davis. On 25 June the 50-year-old state senator from Fort Worth embarked on a filibuster to frustrate the passage of the proposed legislation.
Critics charge that the bill would necessitate expensive, impractical and unnecessary upgrades that would spell the closure of all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics, forcing women in rural areas to travel hundreds of miles. Proponents claim they want to make the process safer; their opponents argue the reverse will be true as women will seek backstreet abortions and be denied many health services.
Davis stood and spoke for nearly 11 hours without so much as a bathroom break. The drama was live-streamed online and Davis became an overnight Democratic darling. But triumph was fleeting. Rick Perry, the Texas governor, called a 30-day special session to give the bill another chance. This time it zipped over the hurdles and was approved by the Senate late on Friday night, though it will now be challenged in the federal courts, potentially delaying its implementation for years.
Since Davis’s stand, rallies have taken place in Austin on an almost daily basis, with slogans on T-shirts and placards declaring “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” and “Rick Perry: soft on guns and tough on vaginas”. An orange bus branded “Stand With Texas Women” has just finished a tour of the state’s major cities. Publicity-seeking celebrities have arrived, from former Republican presidential wannabe Rick Santorum to the actor Lisa Edelstein, best known as Hugh Laurie’s chief love interest in House.
Austin is the most leftwing and unconventional city in Texas, yet the statehouse is crammed with some of America’s most hardline conservatives. On Monday, Perry revealed that he would not seek re-election next year, prompting speculation that he will mount a fresh bid for the US presidency in 2016. Flanked by bulldozers at a Caterpillar dealership owned by one of his backers, the 63-year-old preached that Texas’s impressive economic growth during his unprecedented 12-plus years as governor is thanks to hands-off government.
Critics object that Perry is overseeing the ultimate governmental intrusion: the state dictating what a woman can and cannot do with her body. In 2010, Texas had the fourth-highest teenage pregnancy rate in the US and the highest level of “repeat teen births”. But in 2011 the state drastically cut funds for family planning and introduced a law designed to persuade women not to have abortions by forcing them to undergo sonograms and listen to a description of the foetus.
The governor appears to hold a genuine religious conviction that abortion is morally wrong, but in Texas politics a stance usually has a subtext. “It’s hardly about everyone being able to go to bed and know they’re going to heaven. It’s about a lot of political and financial interests,” Slamen says, pointing out that Perry’s sister is on the board of an advocacy association for Texas outpatient surgery centres, which would play a central role in future abortion provision in the state.
In his 2010 book, Fed Up!, Perry wrote: “If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don’t come to Texas.” After last December’s school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Perry and Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, tried to lure gun owners and manufacturers to the Lone Star State with the promise of a more supportive environment. Abbott posted an advertisement on his Facebook page in March with a picture of a gun and a Bible and the words: “Two things every American should know how to use … Neither of which are taught in schools.”
Slamen lives in Houston, a booming oil and gas industry hub which one recent study named the most diverse metropolitan area in the US. Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker, is an openly lesbian Democrat. But Slamen is frustrated that Texas is “looking really regressive and oppressive” to “the people who only know us through TV and cowboy hats, and it probably all looks like a western”.
Democrats believe that the last few weeks mark a turning point, but Slamen is sceptical about the party’s prospects. In fact, she thinks it might become even tougher for the left: “It’s a long process, and right now I don’t think we’re in resolution, we’re in the agitation process.
“Their kneejerk reaction is to dismiss me and assume that it’s going to melt away. They are a 20th-century legislature dealing with 21st-century conditions. So I think they’re going to snap back and get more repressive and make it a lot harder for people.”
Slamen may be getting the hell out of Dodge. She is contemplating a move to New York City, her partner’s home town. The couple have decided they “just couldn’t bear to live here any more” and with the lack of low-cost healthcare. A Gallup poll found that last year nearly 29% of Texans had no health insurance, by far the highest percentage in the US. But Perry refused to accept an estimated $100bn over 10 years in federal handouts to expand Medicaid, the government healthcare programme for the poor, calling it an unworkable system.
“We cannot afford to get pregnant here,” Slamen says. “I’m a person, I can’t be some agenda all the time.” If she does go, she will be a loss to her fellow activists. These are hard times for the beleaguered liberals of Texas.
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