The reproductive rights debate rages on in the U.S. as much as in the rest of the world, with the most recent hotspot of activity in Texas. Yesterday, during its last night of a special legislative session, the Texas Senate considered a bill that would severely restrict access to abortions within the state. Among other things, the bill would ban (with limited exceptions) abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and require abortion clinics to have admitting privileges with a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, a high bar for rural area clinics. Delving deeply into the rules of parliamentary procedure, opponents managed to block the passage of the bill by delaying any vote on it until after the session expired at midnight.
Emerging as a pro-choice hero was state Senator Wendy Davis, whose plans to filibuster for approximately 13 hours were interrupted 11 hours in by a discussion of whether Davis’s filibuster had ended due to her alleged violations of parliamentary procedure. During the filibuster and discussion (when it remained unclear whether her filibuster had officially ended), Davis remained standing, without leaning, eating, drinking, or taking a bathroom break, as per the rules of the Senate. Davis’s colleagues supported her to the end, prolonging the discussion and preventing a vote by raising a number of parliamentary points of order. The Senate finally voted to end Davis’s filibuster with minutes remaining in the session, despite several attempts by Senator Leticia Van de Putte to be heard before the vote. Van de Putte perhaps had the last word of the night, however, when she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?,” provoking a deafening uproar from pro-choice protestors in the gallery which ultimately prevented the passage of the bill before the session expired.
The issue, discussed for the better part of 11 hours through Senator Davis’s own words and the anecdotes of supporters around the state, highlighted the importance of access to women’s health facilities for all women regardless of economic class, and the notion that the bill wouldn’t lower the number of abortions but would instead drive these medical procedures underground. Indeed, around the world, lack of access to safe and legal abortions has been connected to a rise in women seeking unsafe, clandestine abortions.
This may be a small victory for reproductive rights advocates, as the bill may simply be put to vote again in another special session. Even still, for the many following along in person, on the live feeds, or on Twitter, the day and night felt momentous. To the many pro-choice advocates, the coming together of the Senators and the public in the gallery was proof of democracy at work. The filibuster, a tool designed to allow a minority to fight against complete majority rule, did precisely that last night.
The intensity of the last few hours of the legislative session may also be an indicator of an increasingly intense debate to come. Texas is one of several states that has attempted to or succeeded in severely restricting abortion access in recent years, despite vociferous protest from pro-choice advocates and constitutional injunctions in states like North Dakota preventing strict abortion rules from becoming practice. But the scene in Austin last night showcased the dedication of the pro-choice movement, surprising many who did not expect such a showing from Texas. This may very well have renewed the momentum of the movement. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood and daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards, has proclaimed:
“They lit the fuse in Austin – but the fire is catching all over the country.”
EDITED TO UPDATE: Texas Governor Rick Perry confirmed that he will be calling a special session, beginning July 1, 2013, to revisit the bill.