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AUSTIN, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)-- Legislative debate on the hotly contested anti-abortion bill favored by GOP Gov. Rick Perry will proceed over the next few weeks and supporters and opponents intend to cram the Texas Capitol to keep the heat on lawmakers.
Demonstrations on Monday, July 1, the start of the second special session, drew large crowds of abortion rights advocates to the statehouse from all over Texas to protest bills that had failed to pass in both a regular and a special legislative session.
As rally organizers had asked, these protesters came early and wore orange because coordinators knew that this would be the most meaningful color because it's the hue of the University of Texas school team, the Texas Longhorns.
Many held signs saying: "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" or "Run Wendy Run," a reference to Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis who defeated the bills in a one-woman filibuster at the end of the first special session that ended at midnight on June 25.
Planned Parenthood, one of the organizers of the rally, estimated that more than 5,000 people turned up. Police estimates of the crowd were not available.
Several hundred anti-abortion activists also turned out. Dressed in blue, they gathered at the statehouse to support legislation that they said would save innocent lives and protect women's health. Some carried crucifixes and rosaries, others held posters condemning abortion, while a few sealed their mouths with red tape marked LIFE.
The legislation would ban abortion after 20 weeks and reduce access to abortion services for all but the wealthiest by requiring abortion clinics to make costly upgrades in line with ambulatory surgical care clinics, a move that health advocates say is so burdensome that most clinics will be forced to close.
Warnings of Resurgence in Illegal Abortion
"The closure of free-standing clinics could lead to a resurgence of illegal abortion and complications," Dr. Lisa M. Hollier, chair of the Texas District American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in public testimony during the first special session. "This would represent a significant step backward for the health status of Texas women."
Perry slashed women's health funds by two-thirds and banned Planned Parenthood from providing safety net health care in 2011. As a result, about 60 family planning clinics closed and roughly 140,000 women lost access to family planning and preventive services. Data show a rising rate of maternal mortality among the population most affected by healthcare access restrictions.
Time and procedural rules are widely expected to favor Perry's side and pave the way to the passage of the bill this time.
Despite the gravity of the topic, the sheer scale of the pro-choice protests created a festive air. A Texas rock group, the Bright Light Social Hour, and later Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, played to a crowd that stretched the length of the Capitol's shaded boulevard.
An airplane funded by MoveOn.org flew over the statehouse trailing a #standwithwendy banner. Families relaxed on picnic blankets, volunteers distributed water, and advocacy groups circulated voter registration forms. For hours, speeches by reproductive rights activists and local politicians electrified the crowd.
Planned Parenthood's president Cecile Richards, herself a Texas native, captured the mood when she said: "We settled the prairies. We built this state and raised our families. We've survived hurricanes and tornadoes, and we'll survive the Texas legislature! To put it in terms Rick Perry would understand: I am an American. I am a Texan. And no government gets to make my personal decisions for me."
Many in the crowd had never been politically active before. Maria Alonso, 21, had watched events unfold during the first special session and wanted to be there to prevent "people taking advantage of women's reproductive rights." She had volunteered for Battleground Texas, an advocacy group geared towards mobilizing Democratic voters and was distributing leaflets to other protesters about trainings for civic engagement.
Makala Schells, 21, and Sean Thompson, 27, attended the protest with their infant son. "I felt like it was pretty much time for me to get involved in things like this," said Schells. "I stood by and fumed [during the special session] but when I heard about this rally on Facebook I decided to show my support instead of being mad at home."
Among the demonstrators who favor the bills was Amy Kinney, who brought her three small children with her. "It was really heartbreaking . . . to see it end the way it ended," she said, referring to the way the bills failed to pass at the bitter end of the first special session.
In the first special session, anti-choice legislators cut short public testimony and proceeded to a vote. Even though Davis, aided by Democratic colleagues and supporters in the gallery, successfully blocked it with her filibuster, supporters of the legislation tried to pass the bill before the midnight deadline.
Several hundred onlookers packed into the building in the early morning hours, both inside the public gallery and outside in the rotunda. Their angry chants, coupled with electronic proof that the vote hadn't occurred before midnight, led Republican senators to concede that the anti-abortion bill had indeed failed.
Furious, the leader of the Texas senate said that an "unruly mob" had "derailed" the legislation.
Perry responded by calling another special session. Bill opponents, increasingly galvanized, vowed to protest en masse.
Now, on the governor's side, a grassroots movement is working to bring more supporters of the far-reaching bill of abortion restrictions to the Capitol over the coming weeks. Perry is boosting the mobilization effort. Bill supporters have set up a Twitter hashtag -- #stand4life – to rival the boisterous pro-choice #standwithwendy Tweet stream. Texas pastors are being asked to send their congregants to Austin. Bill supporters are encouraged to pray.
Carolyn Jones (www.carolynjoneswrites.com) is a freelance writer and journalist based in Austin<.. She writes primarily about health policy and reproductive justice. Events in Texas keep her busy.
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