AUSTIN (AP) — Texas Republicans pushed ahead Monday with aggressive efforts to pass tough new abortion restrictions they failed to approve last month, scheduling a House vote and beginning what promised to be a marathon public hearing about the legislation.
The House is expected to vote Tuesday on new restrictions for abortions in Texas. The bill is essentially the same in both the House and Senate. If it passes, the bill will ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and the new regulations would also limit abortion to surgical centers.
The bill also puts new limits on drugs given to cause abortions.
Activists for and against the proposed restrictions descended on the Capitol for the hearing, wearing their signature colors. About 2,000 anti-abortion demonstrators in blue staged a Capitol rally that heavily invoked God and Biblical teachings.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, energized the crowd by describing the debate over abortion as a fight "between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan."
About 1,000 orange-clad abortion-rights protesters staged a march through downtown Austin as the rally took place.
Gov. Rick Perry, who was in San Antonio on Monday afternoon to announce that he will not seek re-election in 2014, has pledged the Legislature's Republican majority will pass the new restrictions in the current 30-day special session. The House Calendars Committee met early Monday to schedule a Tuesday debate and vote on the measure.
The Senate Health and Human Service Committee began what promised to be a long public hearing on the bill, as more than 2,000 people — some of whom showed up before dawn — registered to testify or log a position on the bill. About 475 signed up to give two minutes of testimony each, while others simply wanted to register an opinion on the bill.
The House and Senate bills would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require that the procedure be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, mandate that doctors who perform abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and that even nonsurgical abortions take place in a surgical center.
Last week, a House panel heard eight hours of testimony from about 100 witnesses but cut off thousands more who had registered. Unlike the House, which has online registration, the Senate required witnesses to register in person.
Senate chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she was willing to allocate more time for testimony than the House did but still needed to place a limit. She said the panel would not vote at the hearing's conclusion.
"We'll stay here the rest of the week if necessary," to hear witnesses, Nelson said, promising there would be "no breaks."
"We're going to run straight through the night," Nelson said.
Before any of them started, Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, called abortion an "American holocaust" and placed two pairs of infant sneakers at his desk as a reminder of fetuses that were aborted before they could be born.
Activists from both sides roamed the hallways, packed waiting rooms and waited for their chance to speak. Security was tight, but the gathering lacked the tension of a protest at a similar House hearing last week, when demonstrators chanted, sang and prayed their way around crowded hallways.
Once testimony began, the panel alternated between allowing bill supporters and opponents to speak. Nelson quickly cut off witnesses at their two minutes and kept the proceeding moving. But even with only a short time allowed, several women told emotionally wrenching stories of regrets about having abortions or delivered passionate defenses of a right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
Other witnesses cited the Bible in calling for a total ban an abortion, while some angrily defended a woman's right to having access to a legal medical procedure.
Vanessa Riley, who opposed the bill, said she had an abortion after learning in her second trimester that the child she was carrying had severe developmental problems.
"My husband and I made the most ethical decision we could," Riley said. "I was preventing pain, not causing it."
Outside the Capitol, top Republican lawmakers explained their support of the bill in personal, religious terms. Attorney General Greg Abbott — who has used a wheelchair since he was 26, when a tree collapsed on him during a jog, leaving him paralyzed in both legs — said he would "stand for life" with demonstrators in spirit.
"You don't have to stand to fight for life," Abbott said.
Only five out of 42 clinics in Texas qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, and they are in major metropolitan areas. Many clinics would need to relocate to meet ventilation requirements and to have the space required for operating rooms and hallways.
Opponents of the bill say the new requirements are unnecessary and would force most Texas abortion clinics to close. Supporters of the bills say they want
to reduce access to abortion and improve women's health care. Texas health officials report that 72,240 abortions performed in the state in 2011, including 374 that happened after 20 weeks.
The 20-week ban is based on the scientifically disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain by that point and thus, deserves protection from abortion. Other states have passed similar fetal pain restrictions, including some that are being challenged in court, but Texas has been at the center of the national abortion debate since a Democratic state senator succeeded in preventing the Legislature from passing the new restrictions last month by staging a nearly 13-hour filibuster on the session's last day.
Perry called lawmakers into a new 30-day special session to take up the bill again. An abortion-rights rally July 1 drew thousands of demonstrators on both sides to the Capitol.
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