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Anti-Abortion Bills Back on the Table

UPDATED: The House State Affairs Committee did not vote on an omnibus abortion bill after more than nine hours of testimony. Opponents of the measure say the abrupt end to the hearing may open the door to killing it.

Preparations for Planned Parenthood rally at Texas Capitol on March 7th, 2013

Updated, June 21, 12:25 p.m.:

After cutting off public testimony near 4 a.m. Friday morning with approximately 300 advocates left to testify, the House State Affairs committee plans to reconvene at 1 p.m. this afternoon to consider “pending business” — the omnibus abortion restrictions in House Bill 60 and its companion, Senate Bill 5.

With time running out in the special session, opponents of the measures say the abrupt end to the hearing early Friday may open the door to kill the legislation.

“I’ve been getting calls from people that were so upset at having been cut off. They thought this really was a Democratic process,” said state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston and chairwoman of the House women’s health caucus. “People traveled from all over the state and just arbitrarily the chair decided it was going to end.”

HB 60, authored by state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, would ban abortions at 20 weeks, require abortions to be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and require doctors administering abortion-inducing drugs to do so in person. The Senate approved its companion, SB 5, authored by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, without the 20-week abortion ban on Tuesday.

Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, warned advocates that he planned to end testimony on HB 60 around midnight because it had become repetitive and unhelpful to the committee’s decision-making, according to the Austin American-Statesman. He ended testimony on HB 60 at 1:30 a.m., and took an additional two hours of testimony on a standalone bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks gestation.

Calls to Cook’s Capitol office and the committee office have not yet been returned.

Farrar and reproductive rights advocates allege Cook’s decision to end testimony could endanger the legislation. House members may be able to kill the bill on a point of order if the committee did not follow proper legislative procedures when they ended testimony. If approved, advocates could also sue the state and seek to overturn the legislation, arguing the state ignored Democratic processes by denying them the opportunity to speak on the bill.

Hegar would not comment on whether he was concerned the bill was in danger.

“I don’t focus on what the House is doing, because I don’t have a vote over there,” he said.

Alana Rocha contributed video to this story.

Updated, June 21,  7:40 a.m.:

The House State Affairs Committee did not vote on an omnibus abortion bill after more than nine hours of often heated testimony that lasted into the early morning hours on Friday.

The hearing on House Bill 60 shut down for about 15 minutes at about 12:30 a.m. Friday, after witnesses protested  Corsicana Republican Rep. Byron Cook's announcement that he would end the testimony on HB 60 at 1 a.m. Cook, the committee chairman, said the testimony had grown repetitive.

After Department of Public Safety Officers entered and committee members vacated the room, Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, returned to say the hearing would continue if witnesses could be “respectful.” 

The hearing, which had begun early Thursday evening, resumed around 12:45 a.m. and ended at after 3:30 a.m. 

Original story:

Legislators sparred and advocates for and against an omnibus abortion bill filled three rooms at a hearing Thursday evening on the House version of that legislation.

House Bill 60 would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles, require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical clinics, and regulate how doctors administer pills for medical abortions. 

HB 60 would originally have required women receiving medical abortions to take the Food and Drug Administration's recommended dosage, which physicians have said is dangerously high. The committee substitute introduced in the hearing reduced the dosage to that recommended in obstetrician-gynecologist guidelines. 

The bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 5, passed Tuesday night after an amendment removed the 20-week ban. State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, who sponsored the House legislation, has said she hopes to revive the ban in the Senate by passing HB 60.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, questioned Laubenberg about the justifications for the 20-week ban, which is based on research that suggests fetuses at 20 weeks of gestation can feel pain. Though research indicates fetuses respond to stimuli at that point of pregnancy, there is no consensus on whether they feel pain.

Farrar also asked whether HB 60 would deprive women of choice, to which Laubenberg responded, “The Legislature should err on the side of life, not death.”

The two also debated whether the requirement that abortion clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical clinics would reduce the availability of abortion in the state.

“My concern is when that happens, desperate people do desperate things in desperate times,” Farrar said. 

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, asked why the legislation included no exception for cases of rape or incest.

Rape is “a horrible violation to a woman,” Laubenberg said, adding that the state should focus on punishing the perpetrator but still not allow abortion if the fetus is past 20 weeks. 

Witnesses testified both for and against the bill, with those in favor of the bill citing the potential for fetal pain or saying abortion facilities should meet higher health standards. 

Those against the bill said it would force children to be born without creating a system to provide for them or that it would restrict access for poor or rural women who don't live near clinics that would qualify under the proposed standards.

Abortion advocates used Twitter to urge people to drag out the hearing by testifying, with the hope of delaying a vote on the bill. Legislation must pass both houses of the Texas Legislature by Tuesday, when time runs out on the 30-day special session. 

Matthew Romberg, an OB-GYN from Round Rock, said the legislation would needlessly limit women’s access to abortions despite what he said were decreased medical risks, compared to carrying a pregnancy to term.

“The last thing we want is for them to go to Dr. Google to figure out how to do this,” he said.

Carol Everett, an anti-abortion advocate, said the bill would help women by raising standards for abortions.

“This is a health protection for her,” she said.

Others cited the precedent established in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which says women have a constitutional right to choose to have an abortion before fetal viability.

“It’s a clear violation of a woman’s constitutional right,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Other states have tried this, and courts have not upheld it.”

The House Committee on State Affairs is expected to vote on the bill later tonight, but 200 more witnesses are registered to testify first.

*An earlier version of this story misidentified Matthew Romberg, an OB-GYN from Round Rock.

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