As sweeping abortion regulations continued to speed toward passage in the Texas Legislature, thousands of people on both sides of the debate flooded the Capitol again Monday for competing rallies and for the second special session’s final public hearing on abortion-related legislation.
Long lines began forming hours before the 10 a.m. Senate committee hearing, with 475 people registering to speak — the equivalent of 16 hours of testimony at two minutes per speaker — with all due to be heard on Senate Bill 1, provided they remained late into the night.
“I am prepared … to go as long as it takes,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the committee. “It is my intent to run straight through the night.”
With the Capitol once again serving as ground zero in the abortion wars, the focus shifted outdoors around sunset, when former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee told a Stand for Life rally that “life is not a government gift, life is a God gift.”
“The eyes of America are on Texas and the stand you are taking,” Huckabee said from the Capitol’s south steps. “You have no idea how blessed you are in Texas to have such leadership that unequivocally stands for every life having value and worth.”
While Huckabee, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott spoke to a crowd that the Associated Press estimated at 2,000, opponents of the legislation gathered nearby for a march down Congress Avenue to Austin City Hall.
Accompanied by honking supporters and carrying signs reading “Keep your theology off my biology” and “Keep your laws off my body,” the marchers stretched across three lanes and more than two blocks.
The Texas House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on an identical measure, House Bill 2, which would prohibit abortions at 20 weeks postfertilization, require all abortion clinics to undergo extensive renovations to certify as ambulatory surgical centers and heighten regulations on abortion-inducing drugs and abortion doctors.
Approval is expected. The Republican-led House approved an identical measure last month, during the first special session, on a 95-34 vote after easily fighting off 13 proposed Democratic amendments.
The House convenes at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Monday’s public hearing began with state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, placing two small pairs of shoes on the dais to represent the victims of abortion “who will never fill these shoes.”
Wearing blue, many of those who spoke in favor of the bill listed religious and moral reasons for opposing abortion or recounted emotional and physical problems after undergoing the procedure.
Many opponents, dressed in orange, argued that the measure was an improper government intrusion that would force most Texas abortion clinics to close, pushing women to seek illegal, unsafe abortions.
Both sides debated the medical basis for the abortion ban at 20 weeks, which is based on disputed medical findings that a fetus can feel pain at that age.
Nelson rotated witnesses who were for and against the bill, placing opponents side by side at the witness table. Instead of clashes, the situation produced several quiet moments — witnesses passing tissues or water to a crying opponent — that belied the strong emotions on display.
At one point, a woman in blue — who had tearfully recounted a years-ago abortion — held the hand of an orange-clad woman who was speaking about an earlier rape that didn’t result in a pregnancy but inspired her to fight to defend abortion rights.
“This is the most beautiful thing I have seen all day long,” an emotional Nelson told the women as she reached for a tissue. “I’ve never cried at a hearing.”
To be eligible to speak, witnesses had to be in line by 11 a.m., but several thousand waited for hours merely to register a position for or against SB 1.
Lynell Hunt of Austin arrived at the Capitol at 7:20 a.m. and didn’t reach the line’s end until 10:40 a.m., when she registered her opposition to a bill that she feared would shut down abortion clinics that also provide health care and family planning to low-income women.
“I think women should be able to make this choice, and I don’t think the state should interfere,” Hunt said.
Janie Clawson drove in with family members from Emory, about 70 miles east of Dallas, to register her support for the bill. “We just came to make the statement that we are for life. We believe life is sacred,” Clawson said.
By 5:30 p.m., more than 2,200 had registered an opinion on the bill, with dozens more joining the line. A breakdown of supporters vs. opponents wasn’t yet available.
Nelson said her committee won’t vote on SB 1 when the hearing ends. Instead, the panel will wait for HB 2 to arrive from the House, then debate and vote on that measure without a second public hearing, she said.
That timeline could set up a final vote in the Senate as early as Friday.
The abortion showdown was set up by Gov. Rick Perry, who called a new special session after the Legislature’s first overtime period ended last month with a filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and a loud demonstration by gallery spectators that halted work in the Senate in the final minutes of the session.
Abbott, considered a front-runner to replace Perry as governor in 2014, said at the rally Monday night that Texas “is not going to stand idly by while life is threatened.”
“All lives matter here in this, the world of God,” Abbott said.