On the first day of the second special session, activists on both sides of the abortion debate arrived at the Capitol to make their voices heard.
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All of the emotion and anxiety and political theater that marked the end of the first special session returned to the Capitol yesterday to set the stage for the second one. The baggage from last week’s dramatic events in the Senate—the Wendy Davis filibuster, the media glare, the pointed accusations on both sides—was on full display in both chambers, where Democrats questioned whether witnesses would get fair hearings on the omnibus abortion bills, House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 1, and Republicans worried about future breaches of decorum, both from the activists and from the Democratic members.
But the real action of the day was on the south lawn of the Capitol where thousands in orange—this being Austin, mostly burnt orange—had assembled, water bottles and hand-lettered signs in tow. (A sampling of slogans: “My Womb, My Choice,” “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” and the cringeworthy “Republicans Can’t Defetus.”) And, of course, nods to Davis were everywhere: from those in sporting her now famous rouge red Mizuno sneakers, to the plane circling overhead with the banner “Stand with Wendy.”
“I was lucky enough to make the choices in my life that I knew would work for me,” Davis, back in Austin after a long weekend in Fort Worth and a flurry of national television appearances, told the crowd. “That’s what we are fighting for now: a Texas where every woman is able to overcome her unique challenges because she had the same choices and the same chances I had.” She slammed state leaders for playing politics with women’s health: “Every single statewide office is held by the kind of politician that cares more about their political future than their fellow Texans,” she said, while remaining mum on whether she would make a run for the governor’s mansion in 2014.
The daughter of the last Democrat to hold that job, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, declared that her mother, who advocated “opening up the doors of government and letting the people in,” would have been proud that so many people turned up at the Capitol Monday. “Texas women are tough, right? We survived hurricanes and tornadoes, and we’ll survive the Texas Legislature, too,” Richards said.
It so happens that the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue, is also a Texan. The El Paso-native said she was on her honeymoon in Turkey last week when she heard the news about Davis’s filibuster. “This is the filibuster heard around the world and it came from Texas,” she said, and praised the crowd for their actions “to prevent a vote and alter the course of history.” The second loudest applause of the day was reserved for Senator Leticia Van de Putte, the San Antonio Democrat who returned to Austin last Tuesday after her father’s funeral to be on the floor for the vote. “Last week you stood with Wendy. This week you stand with Texas women. Don’t you ever sit down!” Van de Putte said.
Those in orange were met by a large contingent (numbering, in their own estimates, in the hundreds, not thousands) of pro-life activists clad in blue. At one point, a line of pro-life activists snaking up the stairwell and around the rotunda began singing “Amazing Grace,” muffling the chants of their pro-choice counterparts. And as the pro-choice rally was underway outside, journalists crammed into a small room just outside the Senate chamber, where about fifty pro-life women, organized by the San Antonio-based Justice Foundation‘s Operation Outcry ministry, had gathered to testify about the abortions that they had had, and long regretted. Betrayal was a common theme among the half-dozen women who spoke. They said that they had been misled by the “abortion industry,” their partners, their families, or even the law itself, into thinking that terminating a pregnancy was not a serious matter, and that the consequences would be minimal—after all, if it was legal, how could it be wrong? “They told me it was legal, but they didn’t tell me what it was…they’re tearing my baby into pieces inside of me,” one of the women said.
Their distress was real, and moving, and the scenarios described were unsettling—if not illegal, even at the time. One woman described having an abortion in the third trimester; another said that her doctor, having taken her money in cash, waved it at her mockingly: “I love stupid women like you.” It was notable, though, that all of the women who spoke, except for one who described having had an abortion at sixteen under pressure from her parents, were referring to abortions that must have taken place years ago, in the decade or two following Roe v. Wade. That their grief had lingered was indisputable. At the same time, some of the circumstances have already been addressed by state or federal law; the woman who said that she had not had a sonogram, and didn’t realize how fully her fetus had developed, would have been covered against that scenario by Texas’s 2011 law, which requires women seeking an abortion to undergo that procedure.
Later, in the Senate, Royce West, the Dallas Democrat who had held up his iPhone in the chamber early Wednesday morning to show other Senators it was after midnight, returned to that question on the floor Monday. “Mr. President, how do we determine official legislative time?” he asked Dewhurst, pointing out that the clock in the chamber is two minutes slow. Indeed, the baggage from the first called special session was on full display Monday in both chambers. The mood on the Senate floor in a word? “Tense,” according to Kirk Watson, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. While the opening invocation is typically delivered by an invited minister, Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw delivered Monday’s, in which she prayed for a return to civility and called on God to “restore this Senate to the body that we all love so much.” The bulk of the next 24 minutes was devoted to Democrats making parliamentary inquiries of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Watson, as he did at the beginning of last special session, inquired about whether Dewhurst intended to refer a blocker bill, which would enable the senate to operate under the same two-thirds rule as it does during the regular session. No, Dewhurst replied.
On the west side of the rotunda, the House spent 48 minutes doing much of the same, with Republicans asking about the decorum with which House members must conduct themselves—some House Democrats had been seen cheering on the protestors on the floor of the Senate—and Democrats asking about whether all testimony on the abortion bills would be heard.
Ultimately, Monday’s brief floor action did not see the disruptions of last Tuesday, as the crowd—a third of which was wearing blue—kept quiet. Among those perched in the gallery were twelve modern-day suffragettes wearing yellow “Vote for Women” banners and long skirts.The group of friends had pulled together their elaborate outfits and driven in from the Metroplex for Monday’s protest. “We decided that when Perry called another special session that was enough,” Donna Bonfield explained. “Mostly, I just want the government out of my womb,” Bonfield said, before her friend Debra Kellerhals quickly added “. . . and my daughter’s and my granddaughter’s.”