More than 600 women’s health advocates crowded into Texas’ state capitol building on Sunday night, hoping to prevent a vote on a package of abortion restrictions before the state’s special session ends early this week. Ultimately, however, their efforts were unsuccessful. In the early hours of Monday morning, Republicans used their majority to cut off debate and give preliminary approval to Senate Bill 5, an omnibus measure that would force most of the abortion clinics in the Lone Star state to close their doors.
SB 5 combines several abortion restrictions that failed to advance during Texas’ regular session into one sweeping bill, and would ultimately leave Texas women with just five abortion clinics left in the entire state. Gov. Rick Perry (R) forced a last-minute vote on several pieces of anti-abortion legislation, including SB 5, to give them another chance. Since the current special session operates under different procedural rules, it’s more difficult for Democrats to block legislation from advancing.
On Thursday night, nearly 800 protesters registered to testify against SB 5. Their “people’s filibuster” stretched on for 12 hours and successfully delayed the House from voting on the restrictive measure. They tried again on Sunday night, filling the capitol rotunda with protesters as Democrats continued delaying a vote for 15 hours.
“Women are not going to tolerate the constant chipping away of their rights, we are not going to be bullied,” Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D) said on Sunday night in reference to the legislature’s attempt to push through last-minute abortion restrictions. “We are soldiers in the army of women’s rights, and while today we may be outnumbered and out gunned, our cause is just and we shall prevail.”
But around four in the morning, Republicans cut off the ongoing debate so they could finally force a vote, a decision that the Associated Press characterized as a “highly unusual and partisan move.” SB 5 won preliminary approval with a 97-33 vote. The bill still needs final approval from the House, and then it will head to a Senate vote before the special session comes to a close on midnight on Tuesday. There’s still a chance that it can be blocked if Senate Democrats successfully filibuster the vote on Tuesday.
After the House vote on SB 5, protesters lined the stairs of the Capitol rotunda and chanted, “Shame them to their faces” and “shame them for what they’ve done.” But State Rep. Jessica Farrar (D), the chairwoman of the House women’s health caucus, reminded the crowd of protesters that their efforts weren’t in vain. “It really mattered what you did,” Farrar told the protesters, pointing out that successfully delaying the action on SB 5 will allow the Senate to attempt a filibuster.
Republicans have been sharply criticized for their attempt to push through abortion restrictions under special legislative rules after every single anti-abortion bill was successfully blocked during this year’s regular session. “Everything about the process related to these abortion regulation bills has smelled like partisan politics,” Farrar said during the late-night debate on SB 5.
Proponents of the abortion restrictions say that they are necessary measures to help protect women’s health and safety. But major medical groups in Texas — including the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hospital Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — have all come out in opposition to SB 5, and have sent letters to state lawmakers asking them to vote against it.