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House Panel Advances Abortion Restrictions

A day after thousands of protesters swarmed the state Capitol to oppose new restrictions on abortions in Texas, a House committee voted along party lines to approve the legislation.

Pamela Whitehead, 39, of Katy, Texas speaks to other demonstrators opposed to abortion outside of the Texas State Capitol State Affairs Committee, July 2, 2013.

Updated July 3, 4:30 p.m.: 

Following Tuesday night's hearing, House officials told reporters that 2,181 people had registered in support of the bill, while 1,355 had registered against it. They said today that they had those numbers reversed. The story has been updated below. 

Updated, July 3, 12:15 a.m.:

After closing public testimony just after midnight, the House State Affairs Committee voted 8-3, along party lines, to approve House Bill 2.

Public testimony was closed before more than 1,000 people who wished to testify on the bill were given the opportunity. Of the 3,543 people who registered a position on the bill, fewer than 100 testified — in nearly equal number for and against the bill —­ before midnight.

According to House officials, 2,181 people registered against the bill, while 1,355 registered for the bill.

“The time clock has not run out on this special session, and I do believe the people who come here do have a right to have their voices heard,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, told the committee. He voted against the bill.

Allen Parker, president of the conservative Justice Foundation, was the last person to testify.

People waiting in the committee room called out requests to testify.

“My mom died of a back-alley abortion, and I want to testify,” a man called out from the audience. He added that he’d waited more than seven hours.

“When you posted this hearing, you posted it to close at 12:01,” state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said in defense of the committee chair's decision to close public testimony. “I don’t believe you have to take anymore public testimony.”

Updated, 10:47 p.m.:

Advocates from across Texas shared personal stories for several hours Tuesday with House lawmakers on why they supported or opposed the proposed regulations on abortion procedures, facilities and providers in House Bill 2.

Approximately 3,000 people registered a position on the bill at the House State Affairs Committee. Those who testified before the midnight deadline spoke in relatively even numbers for and against the bill. Those against the bill argued that it would restrict access to legal abortion and deprive women of autonomy over their own bodies. Those supporting the bill said it would raise safety standards, promote women’s health and protect unborn children.

Multiple women in favor of the legislation told stories of being coerced into having abortions at a young age. Others described the trauma they experienced during abortion or in the years following the procedure.

“I speak on behalf of the children who will be missed, because they were murdered prior to be being born,” said a woman who testified in favor of the bill while holding an infant in her arms. She described how her parents forced her to have an abortion when she became pregnant at age 15.

“I wanted to keep my child, but my parents didn’t want that,” she said. Although she asked the doctor to stop during the procedure, the woman told lawmakers, the doctor said she would thank him later.

Other women reaffirmed their choice to have an abortion, and argued that depriving women access to abortions would lead more women to seek out illegal, unsafe abortion procedures. Some women described being raped, and defended women's right to choose to have an abortion.

"My conscience is clear," one woman said. "If your religion prevents [abortion], then by all means you should not have one. But that was the right decision for me.”

HB 2, and its companion, Senate Bill 1, would ban abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization and recognize that the state has a compelling interest to protect fetuses from pain; require doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility; require doctors to administer the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 in person, rather than allow the woman to take it at home; and require abortions — including drug-induced ones — to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the State Affairs Committee, who didn't indicate when a vote on HB 2 would be held, said that public testimony on the bill would end at midnight.

In response, one woman told the House panel that it was not democratic to end public testimony before hundreds of people could testify on the bill. “There are hundreds of other voices that you are not going to hear,” she said. “This kind of silencing is unacceptable.”

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and some advocates said that the testimony of proponents and critics did not reflect the crowd that had gathered outside the committee room — most of whom wore orange to indicate their opposition to HB 2. Cook responded that he was attempting to provide each side an equal opportunity to testify by switching back and forth between supporters and opponents of the bill.

Jessica Luther, an abortion rights advocate testifying against the bill, urged lawmakers to consider the circumstances of the women seeking abortion, particularly those who seek an abortion after 20 weeks. “What about the 15-year-old who is so terrified about telling her family?” she asked, “and the women, who may not have the education to understand what’s happening?”

She disputed evidence that abortion facilities and procedures are unsafe.

“If we really cared about the lives of women, we’d be worried about maternal health,” she said. “It’s more dangerous in this state to give birth, something I’ve done, than to have an abortion.”

A survivor of sexual assault testifying against the bill told lawmakers, "This is not about protecting women and our health, but about closing down clinics." She said Gov. Rick Perry used the “language of sexual violence,” when he told supporters of the legislation at the National Right to Life convention in Dallas that the “louder [opponents of the bill] scream, the more we know we are getting something done.”

A disabled man testified that his parents nearly aborted him, because he was diagnosed with fetal abnormalities. “Is my life in a body without arms worth it?” he asked lawmakers, and then described how he had been married for eight years and had two children. He asked lawmakers to remove the exception in HB 2 for fetal abnormalities.

Another man emphasized opponents and supporters of the bill have the same goal — to improve women’s health — and that no one wants another Kermit Gosnell, the Pennsylvania doctor who is serving a life sentence for the murder of a baby born alive in a botched abortion. “We don’t have to be so at each other’s throats, let’s commit to upgrade these clinics, please,” the man said.

Dr. Bradley Price, an obstetrician and gynecologist testifying against the bill, called HB 2 “extremely intrusive into the practice of medicine."

In response to questions from Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo — who asked if fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks and if they have developed hair, fingernails and major organs — Price said the provision to ban abortion at 20 weeks on the premise that fetuses can feel pain is not based on “sound science.”

“As our scientific and our medical knowledge advances, so does our moral responsibility as a state, and that’s what HB 2 accomplishes,” John Seago, legislative director of Texas Right to Life, said in defense of the language that says fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks development in HB 2.

Adryana Boyne, the national director of Voces Action, a conservative Latino advocacy group, also ardently defended evidence that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. She then entered into a heated exchange with Farrar.

“Saying so doesn’t make it so,” said Farrar, who then cited an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found fetuses do not have the capacity to feel pain before the third trimester. According to the study, fetuses do not have the neurological development to feel pain before roughly 29 to 30 weeks of development.

It’s still unclear when the Senate will hold a hearing to discuss HB 2 or SB 1, authored by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. The committee chairwoman in charge of setting the hearing time, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has been out of state. In a letter to Nelson sent Tuesday on behalf of the Senate Democratic Caucus, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, urged Nelson to hold hearings across the state.

“I believe Texans would welcome the opportunity to meet with legislators and to testify in field hearings about women’s health,” he wrote.

Original story:

A day after the start of the second special legislative session — when thousands of protesters swarmed the state Capitol to protect access to abortions in Texas — the Capitol was again packed with hundreds of advocates who came to testify for and against proposed restrictions on abortion providers and facilities at a House committee hearing. 

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, more than 1,900 people had registered to testify about House Bill 2 at the House State Affairs Committee hearing, which is scheduled to last until midnight. The Capitol extension building was a sea of blue and orange, as activists filled the hallways and 11 extension rooms while they awaited their turn to testify. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said that more than 2,000 people were inside the Capitol and had filled more than 1,200 seats in the rooms designated for those wishing to testify.

HB 2, and its companion, Senate Bill 1, would ban abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization and recognize that the state has a compelling interest to protect fetuses from pain; require doctors performing abortions to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility; require doctors to administer the abortion-inducing drug RU-486 in person, rather than allow the woman to take it at home; and require abortions — including drug-induced ones — to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers.

Legislators sparred at the start of the hearing, as House Democrats on the committee took turns questioning the bill's author, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, suggesting the new restrictions could significantly decrease access to abortion across the state. Laubenberg fielded their questions by repeatedly saying that the bill would raise standards of care and improve women’s safety. “I don’t believe the clinics will go out of business,” she said.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said that HB 2 amounted to an "unfunded mandate" because clinics would not receive state funding to help meet surgical facility standards. He also suggested that the bill should require hospitals to grant abortion providers admitting privileges — if the state is going to require abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges — and that the bill include an exception for cases of rape or incest. 

"We should not be imposing mandates of any kind on local communities if the state is not also willing to provide the necessary funding to ensure they meet the mandates," Turner said. 

Laubenberg said she did not want to accept any amendments on the bill. “The way the bill is written is the way I would like to keep it,” she said.

Fellow Republican lawmakers also defended the provisions in HB 2. State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said abortion clinics would have enough time to upgrade to meet the ambulatory surgical center requirements in HB 2. "The whole objective of this bill is to save lives ... and to protect the unborn," he said.

Before the House State Affairs Committee hearing began Tuesday afternoon, demonstrations continued at the Capitol. Hundreds of HB 2 supporters descended on the Capitol in the morning to rally. They sang hymns, such as "Amazing Grace" and "Joy to the World." Some abortion rights advocates — who had greatly outnumbered the abortion opponents at the Capitol on Monday — shouted chants early Tuesday, but the majority of those advocates did not arrive until close to 2:30 p.m.

In the previous special session, hundreds of abortion rights advocates testified on the bill and delayed the House committee’s approval of the bill. Despite the delay, the bill received nearly unanimous approval from the State Affairs Committee. This time, Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, indicated in advance that each person would have three minutes to testify. The position of everyone who registered to testify would be on state record, he added, even if everyone does not have an opportunity to speak. He did not indicate when the committee would vote on HB 2.

While supporters of the legislation say that these regulations would improve safety standards for women seeking an abortion, opponents of the bills say that the restrictions would nearly eliminate access to abortion in Texas. Hospitals are not required to grant doctors privileges, which could make it difficult in some areas of the state for physicians to meet that requirement. Currently, six of the existing 42 facilities that perform abortions meet the ambulatory surgical facility standards, all of which are located within metropolitan areas.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, told the Tribune in March that it cost $300 per square foot, or more than $1.5 million, to set up the ambulatory surgical center they operate in San Antonio. It costs $137,000 a month to operate the ambulatory surgical center, compared with $90,000 a month to operate an abortion clinic, she said.

State Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said he believed the bill imposed heavier standards on abortion facilities than on ASCs, because abortion providers would be required to have admitting privileges at hospitals — something he said ASC physicians do not need.

"What we're talking about is a very specific procedure," Laubenberg replied.

Laubenberg also said she expects the bill to face legal challenges if it passes, adding that it would "probably go up to the Supreme Court."

Witness testimony began around 4:45 p.m., with advocates both for and against the bill testifying in nearly equal number.

Ellen Cooper, an expert witness from the State Department of Health Services, told the committee that state data on abortion facilities and procedures does not indicate a cause for alarm. When Turner asked if the state had noticed problems with the current abortion facilities, Cooper said, “Not to my knowledge.”

DSHS told the Tribune in March that most recent abortion-related death in Texas occurred in 2001 from a drug-induced abortion. After this story was originally published, the agency sent updated information to the Tribune indicating that five abortion-related deaths have occurred in Texas since 2000.

"We have too many abortions already," one male advocate said while testifying in favor of the bill. "There are people around the state who would gladly take in the babies for the adoption process rather than the abortion process."

An opponent of the bill testified that the legislation was not about women's health but rather about "controlling girls and women."

"There isn’t a problem," she said. "Nobody has told me what’s wrong with the abortion clinics that necessitates this."

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. 

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