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Activists Gather for Prayer Rally, March on Abortion Bills

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and several high-profile figures joined an anti-abortion rally on the eve of the House's scheduled vote on omnibus abortion legislation. Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates led a march from the Capitol to protest the legislation.

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As impassioned testimony on proposed abortion regulations continued through the night, supporters of the legislation rallied and prayed at the Capitol with conservative Texas lawmakers, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other leaders from national anti-abortion groups.  

"Tonight, it's not so much that the eyes of Texas are upon you," Huckabee told the crowd, which was dressed in blue. "It's that the eyes of America are on Texas."

By dusk, more than 1,000 supporters of the legislation — which would impose strict new regulations on abortions — had congregated around the south steps of the Capitol, where they were joined by Huckabee, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, among others. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who was not in attendance, sent a statement with a spokesman praising the rally.

The event came a week after an estimated 5,000 abortion rights advocates rallied against the legislation in one of the biggest protests at the Capitol in recent history.

“They had their rally, and now it’s our turn to speak,” said Alexa Coombs, a spokeswoman for Students for Life of America, which organized a bus tour from Washington, D.C., to bring abortion opponents to Texas to advocate for the legislation. The bus, which stopped in Tennessee, Arkansas and other areas of Texas before arriving Monday afternoon, brought to the rally more than 50 college-age students who plan to stay until Saturday to show their support for the legislation.

“We know the state is majority pro-life, and we’d like to have the coverage actually show that,” Coombs added.

Huckabee compared abortion to slavery, asking if society could reject slavery and "come to the conclusion that one person can take the life of another person."

Thousands of activists had descended on the Capitol earlier in the day on Monday to register support or opposition to Senate Bill 1, omnibus abortion legislation under consideration by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Nearly 500 people had registered to testify before 11 a.m. — the cut-off time set by the committee chairwoman, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Nelson estimated public testimony could last for 16 hours if each person spoke for his or her allotted two minutes.

A companion bill, House Bill 2, is scheduled to be debated on the House floor on Tuesday. The Senate committee is not expected to vote on SB 1 Monday night. Rather, it will wait for the House to vote on HB 2 and then vote on whether to send that bill to the Senate floor, Nelson said.

A small group of abortion rights activists, meanwhile, occasionally cheered and chanted at intervals during the anti-abortion rally. The group dissipated about an hour into the rally as hundreds of abortion rights activists assembled for a march from the Capitol to voice their opposition to SB 1 and HB 2.

Clad in orange and brandishing posters criticizing the legislation and Gov. Rick Perry, the protesters walked down Congress Avenue playing music and shouting slogans like "What choice? Our choice!" After their march, the protesters reconvened on the Capitol steps, where they continued to shout chants while some of the anti-abortion activists still present started forming circles and praying.

If passed, the legislation would ban abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization, require physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, make abortion facilities meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and impose new regulations on the administration of abortion-inducing drugs.

Critics of the bills have argued that requiring facilities to meet surgical center standards would shut clinics down because of the cost required to upgrade facilities. Of the 42 clinics in the state, six currently meet ambulatory surgical facility standards. The legislation’s supporters have argued that requiring clinics to meet surgical facility standards is necessary to maintain women's safety. 

The bill would likely face legal challenges if passed. Current U.S. Supreme Court precedent says women cannot be unduly restricted from the option of an abortion before fetal viability, which doctors usually find to be around 24 weeks of gestation. But supporters of SB 1 and HB 2 say that precedent looks to viability instead of fetal pain — the basis of the 20-week ban — and argue that pain is a compelling state interest.

Though research indicates that fetuses can respond to stimuli after 20 weeks, the claim that they feel pain is highly disputed in the scientific community.

Becca Aaronson contributed to this report.

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Health care State government Abortion Texas Legislature