Abortion laws move forward after late night hearing erupts in outrage
Posted on June 21, 2013 at 5:25 PM
Updated Friday, Jun 21 at 5:40 PM
AUSTIN -- In a cramped meeting room inside the Texas Capitol, members of the House State Affairs Committee quietly voted Friday to approve a slate of new abortion laws as the public and press looked on.
Hundreds of mostly women waited as many 12 hours or longer Thursday to testify against legislation supporters claim would make abortions safer, but many warn would close all but five abortion clinics across the state.
New laws proposed under HB 60 would require abortion clinics to adhere to the same facilities guidelines as ambulatory surgical centers, require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and increase restrictions on how abortion pill regimen RU-486 is prescribed and administered.
The "fetal pain" bill, HB 16 would restrict abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on evidence that a fetus can respond to painful stimulus as early as 22 weeks. Medical science draws a distinction between a reflexive response and the ability to experience pain as a feeling, which is believed to develop several weeks later.
Thursday's public hearing on the bills began just before 5:00 p.m., with hundreds already registered to testify. After emotional testimony continued into the midnight hour, committee chair Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) announced that public comment would be cut off before 1:00 a.m. Friday. That announcement resulted in an eruption of outrage, with Cook and other Republican committee members exiting the room as Department of Public Safety troopers swarmed in.
"We have the right to have our voice heard. He should not be able to shut us down like this," Amanda Hernandez told KVUE Thursday night. "I came from Houston. People have come from Fort Worth, El Paso, the valley, and they're not getting to give their testimony, and he has the nerve to say that we are getting repetitive? We are citizens. This is a democracy."
Testimony was ultimately allowed to continue until well after 3:30 a.m. Friday, at which point the committee adjourned without taking a vote on either of the two bills. The committee reconvened shortly after 1:00 p.m. Friday to approve both bills, as well as Senate abortion omnibus SB 5, in a party line vote.
"We had a lot of a impassioned testimony, which is the public's right," said Cook, who spent most of the night graciously welcoming the long line of people anxious to speak their mind. "I think that is a good and healthy part of the process."
"I'm just ashamed at what I saw," Farrar told media Friday, growing emotional. "Sorry, because people traveled from all over the state, and no matter how you feel, there were people on both sides of the issue that came to speak about this, but they were shut down, just abruptly."
Along with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Farrar remained in the hearing room throughout the outbreak, reassuring those who had come to testify that more would be allowed to speak. After Friday's vote, Farrar blasted other committee members who were largely absent for much of the previous night's testimony.
"I'm so ashamed because the people that were on the dais weren't even members of the committee," said Farrar. "The members of the committee weren't even present to hear all this compelling testimony."
"I think members tend to be very thoughtful on these issues," Cook responded to the criticism. Asked whether the overwhelming amount of testimony against the legislation was considered before the committee's vote to move the bills forward, Cook answered, "I think the legislative body weighs very seriously people's concerns."
"It is a farce. It's all about appealing to the far right of the Republican party. Everybody is trying to out right flank each other," Farrar countered. "They're playing political games with women's health, and that's just unacceptable."
"Whether or not anything changed someone's mind last night, I can't say," Howard said Friday. "But I'm hopeful that everyone that was sitting there listening and anyone who watched it would at least recognize that this is a very serious issue that we do need to be very thoughtful about, and it will have consequences no matter what we decide with this legislation."
The vote to send the legislation out of committee was good news for abortion opponents, many of whom testified Thursday night as well.
"There was a lot of diversity of points of view and people," said Joe Pojman with Texas Alliance for Life. "I really think that the committee got a good flavor for those people who were supporting the bill and those people who didn't favor the bill."
"We can't ban abortion here in Texas, at least not before viability," said Pojman. "But what we can do is make abortion as safe a possible for women because they deserve no less."
The full House is expected to take up the legislation on Sunday.