By Chris Tomlinson
AUSTIN — The Texas House began debating a bill on Tuesday that would impose tough new restrictions on abortions, as national activists on both sides of the issue descended on the Capitol building.
Republican Rep. Jody Laubenberg, of Parker, outlined the bill that would require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, only allow abortions in surgical centers, dictate when abortion pills are taken and ban abortions after 20 weeks. Exceptions to the ban would only be allowed when the women’s life was in imminent danger.
Democrats and women’s rights activists have protested the bill for weeks. The measure failed during the regular session when it failed to win enough support, then died in the first special session due to a 13-hour filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat.
Now Republican leaders including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are intent on passing it quickly through the Republican-controlled Legislature in a second special session. Democrats can do little but slow the bill down, attract as much attention as possible and lay the groundwork for a federal lawsuit to block it once if becomes law.
Davis’ successful filibuster put Texas’ bill in the spotlight of the national abortion debate, and prominent figures from both sides have been coming to Austin and staging rallies. On Monday night, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke to abortion rights opponents. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America announced a statewide bus tour Tuesday morning, called Stand With Texas Women.
“It seems like every time women looked up from doing their laundry of helping children with their homework, the Texas Legislature is right there taking aim at them again,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Over the past few years, more than 50 women’s health centers have been shut down.”
Women from both parties who support abortion rights introduced a series of amendments to water down House Bill 2, hanging coat hangers on the front podium to symbolize illegal abortions, which they say will become more common if the law is passed. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, called for an exception to the 20-week ban in cases of rape and incest, but Laubenberg rejected the proposal.
Supporters of the restrictions insist that they will improve the health care women receive by placing more stringent conditions on abortions. Laubenberg told the House on Tuesday that her bill would ensure that women get high-quality treatment while protecting “babies” after 20 weeks of gestation.
“What we’re talking about today truly is about the health and safety of a woman who would undergo an abortion, but also, I want to point out, we are talking about an unborn child,” she said.
Federal courts have ruled that states can regulate abortions, but not to the extent to make them impossible to obtain. That hasn’t stopped Republican-led legislatures in Texas and several other states from passing laws in recent years that test the legal limits.
Opponents of the Texas restrictions say they would effectively ban abortion in much of the nation’s second most-populous state causing the closure of 37 of its 42 abortion clinics.
They also say the Texas restrictions and those passed by other states conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 Roe v. Wade decision, which established that a woman has the right to get an abortion until her fetus could viably survive outside of the womb, which is generally at 22 to 24 weeks of the pregnancy.
It’s unclear if the Texas restrictions could survive a court challenge. Federal courts have suspended aspects of the bill passed by other states. On Monday, a federal judge blocked enforcement of a Wisconsin abortion law requiring admitting privileges.
The Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hospital Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology oppose the bill, calling it unnecessary.
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