The Texas House gave initial approval to heightened abortion
regulations Tuesday, voting largely along party lines after a lengthy, vigorous
and often emotional debate.
A final House vote will be Wednesday, sending House Bill 2 to the Senate, which plans to begin working on the measure Thursday.
Much of Tuesday's debate was fueled by 22 amendments -- 21 from Democrats -- that were all soundly rejected before HB 2 was approved 98-49.
"I'm so sorry about this bill," said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. "It's embarrassing to me that we are doing this. This bill disingenuously, paternalistically and with feigned concern instead panders to personal and political ideology. We are better than that."
Howard said legislators unwisely ignored advice from doctors, including leaders of the Texas Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who said the bill improperly inserts the Legislature into the patient-physician relationship.
"What we are talking about here is going backwards," she said.
State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, took exception to claims that Republicans were motivated by politics or were being dishonest by claiming the bill was intended to protect women.
"I stand with Texas women, but I shall stand here no longer and be accused of conducting a war on women ... merely because I choose to protect innocent human life," Villalba said. "Our intentions are honorable because we care for and we fight for human baby lives."
Referring to props held by Democrats -- including a coat hanger and knitting needle, said to be tools of desperate women denied a legal abortion -- Villalba brandished his own prop, a sonogram image of a 13-week-old son "growing inside my wife."
"This is my baby," he said, his voice rising, "and I will fight, and I will fight, and I will fight to protect my baby, ... and I will continue to fight for this cause because it matters."
As the House vote neared, troopers moved into the Capitol Rotunda to disperse a loudly chanting crowd of at least 400 protesters on both sides of the abortion debate. Although the protest could be heard in the House chamber, it didn't disrupt proceedings.
Authorities said there were no arrests, and both sides vowed to return for subsequent votes on the bill.
HB 2 prohibits abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization based on disputed medical reports that a fetus of that age can feel pain. The bill also requires abortion clinics to undergo extensive renovations to be certified as ambulatory surgical centers, increases regulation of abortion-inducing drugs and requires abortion doctors to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics.
Several defeated amendments sought to add rape and incest exemptions to the 20-week ban, including the only change pushed by a Republican. State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, moved to expand the exemptions and delete the rest of the bill, saying she believed the provisions amounted to a "de facto ban on all abortions" and were therefore unconstitutional.
"We are not debating this issue, we are arguing with each other," Davis said. "No one wants to see an abortion. It is a horrible way to end a pregnancy, but it is a constitutional right."
The bill's author, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, opposed efforts to expand exceptions, saying they were "not guaranteed to heal the pain and suffering that a woman has undergone (in) a horrible situation."
Another failed amendment, by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, would have required the state to pay retrofitting costs so abortion clinics could be certified as surgical centers.
Turner estimated it would cost $1.4 million to $1.6 million to renovate an abortion clinic, or $3 million to build a new ambulatory surgical center -- a cost clinics cannot afford to bear, he said, forcing them to close. "If the goal is to protect the health and safety of women, and if this is a mandate by the Texas state government, then the (state) ought to pay for it," Turner said.
Other defeated amendments would have ended the death penalty, funded a study on maternal and fetal death, improved sex education as a way of reducing unwanted pregnancies and instituted a "loser pays" provision requiring Texas to pay the legal fees if a court challenge overturns provisions in the law.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee announced its intention to vote on the abortion regulations Thursday, clearing the way for final legislative approval as early as Friday or early next week.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which took more than 13 hours of public testimony in a hearing that ended at 1:41 a.m. Tuesday, plans to discuss and vote on HB 2 after it arrives from the House. Of 3,863 people who registered a position on the bill, 2,076 were against and 1,780 were in favor.
Also Tuesday, Democrats and abortion rights supporters kicked off an eight-city bus tour with a Capitol rally and news conference in front of an orange bus emblazoned with the words "Stand with Texas Women."
Before the bus left for Houston, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, called HB 2 a "misguided, dishonest and dangerous bill."
"The partisan leadership in charge does not respect the right of all Texans to make critical medical decisions for themselves," Davis said.
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