AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Republicans voted early Wednesday to move forward with new abortion restrictions, after limiting testimony at a public committee hearing, refusing to consider Democratic amendments and imposing strict security precautions to prevent additional disruptions from protesting abortion-rights supporters.
On a party-line vote, the Republican majority sent the bill to the full Texas House for a vote next week. Gov. Rick Perry is pushing his allies in the Legislature to move quickly after he called lawmakers back for a second special session to pass the bill, which would limiting when, where and how women may obtain an abortion in the state.
More than 3,500 people came to the Capitol and registered a position on the bill, and more than 1,000 signed up to testify. But fewer than 100 people had a chance to express their views because the top Republican on the committee limited testimony to eight hours and refused entreaties to extend it.
"We took testimony in the regular session, in the first special. We've taken a lot of testimony," said House State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, in explaining his decision to limit testimony.
But Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat and among the state's more senior lawmakers, said he objected to cutting off testimony.
"The people have the right to come here, and they have the right to be heard. I think it's wrong to cut them off," Turner said.
Just before the committee's vote, Turner tried to offer amendments, but Cook refused to recognize him or any other Democrat on the committee.
"You can bring it up on the (House) floor," Cook said.
Turner replied, "You know that's just wrong!"
When the hearing began, the corridors were filled with equal numbers of bill supporters, wearing blue, and opponents, wearing orange, but as the night wore on the orange T-shirts became the majority. In some cases, bill opponents marched in circles around anti-abortion activists. There were no arrests or violent incidents reported.
Local pizza shops delivered hundreds of pizzas and drinks to the crowd, and organizers registered people to vote and collected email lists.
The debate over the abortion restrictions has mobilized the public like no other issue in at least a decade. About 700 of the bill's opponents showed up for a hearing during the first special session, and thousands filled the Capitol on that session's final day to support Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster of the bill.
After that session ended and the bill failed, Perry called the Legislature back for a second special session to pass the bill, forcing lawmakers to stop again from scratch with committee hearings.
Those who got the chance to testify offered frequently emotional or angry testimony. Some women shared how they felt their abortions were horrible mistakes, while others said their abortions gave them a second chance. Others cited the Bible in calling for a total ban on the procedure, and some told the lawmakers to stop interfering with their right to decide when or if they have children.
"In this country, we've forgotten about a big law: `Thou shall not kill,"' said Dorothy Richardson, representing the Houston Coalition for Life, in supporting the bill.
Gay Caldwell, who opposes the bill, said that protecting a woman's health meant making sure abortions are legal and safe.
"This bill is about women's lives, and I don't think you want to play politics with women's lives," she said.