Something seriously interesting is happening at the Texas Capitol.
On the heels of last week’s 11 hour filibuster by State Senator Wendy Davis, over 5000 people took to the statehouse to protest the special session called by Governor Rick Perry to vote in the controversial bill severely limiting access to abortions in the Lone Star State.
Elizabeth McQueen and Betty Crafter protest anti-abortion bill HB2 at Texas Capitol
Riding on a wave of optimism and hope and having seen that regular citizens can indeed have an effect on lawmaking and politics, I joined the 5000 women, men and children dressed in orange to show our support of reproductive rights. The energy was amazing. There were a few blue-clad supporters of the bill, but overall it was a peaceful group cheering for the speeches given by lawmakers, celebrities, and clergy who were there. Texas citizens were letting the Legislature know loud and clear that they were angry about this attempt to limit women's choices. Many people said they were there for the same reason that I was - that they were horrified to think that their daughters could grow up to have LESS choice than they had themselves. They were all adamant that women should have autonomy over their own bodies, and that it was unthinkable for lawmakers to make decisions for women that doctors should make.
It all began two weeks ago summer special legislative session, when the Texas State Senate Republicans authored and introduced SB 5, a bill that aimed to:
1) Increase the cut off for abortions from 24 weeks which is the federal standard to 20 weeks.
2) Require all abortion clinics to upgrade to surgical centers
3) Require all abortion providing doctors to have privileges at a nearby hospital.
These last two requirements meant that all but five of the state's abortion clinics would close due to the extremely high cost of making these arguably unnecessary upgrades. In addition, it is extremely unlikely that hospitals would grant abortion-providing doctors privileges as most want to avoid controversy. The few clinics that would remain open would be in the big cities like Austin, Dallas, and Houston, meaning that women in rural areas would not have access to abortions, but also life saving medical care like cancer screenings and reproductive health care.
Well let me tell you, Texas women are not to be trifled with!
One of these women, Austinite Melissa Nicholson, says:
"With almost no notice, only sheer determination, women took off work, arranged childcare, and drove to Austin during the middle of the week to testify at the committee hearing starting at 3pm on a Thursday. Over 700 Texans came to testify, overwhelmingly to protect their Constitutional right. These women, and some men heard over 200 stories - heart breaking, deeply personal, heart felt stories that many had not shared with another soul until that night..."
And, they showed up Sunday, June 23 for the House debate and stayed through the night again until 4:00 am. The same people, with their "happy jazz hands", a silent show of support, came in their orange shirts and quietly watched the Democrats debate this bill with every ounce of their being. And, this group gained huge respect for the mad debate skills, sheer will power, and intelligence exhibited by the Democrats. They saw the Democrats stand up for women, for what is right, and propose thoughtful amendments that would make SB5 more palatable. You know, things like exception for rape, incest, and mental disabilities, sexual education, and contraceptive care. And, they saw the bad behavior exhibited by the Republicans as they talked loudly to one another in corners refusing to listen to amendments as a tactic and then, the bill's author, Sen. Jodie Laubenburg refuse to answer any questions regarding her bill.
By this time, word got out that Senator Wendy Davis was planning her 11-hour filibuster this bill on the last day of the special session to prevent a vote on it, hundreds of thousands of people started watching the live stream, and hundreds more decided to head down there in person, like Kaci Myric, an Austin teacher, who decided at the spur of the moment to go to the Capitol with her eight-year-old daughter, Gretchen.
”I told her there was an amazing senator that was trying to make sure other senators didn't take away rights from women. I explained that across the nation there had been many attempts to remove these rights that women had been fighting for for a long time,” Myric explains. “It felt so wonderful to be with my daughter surrounded by so many passionate people. I felt like democracy was happening right in front of us. I was even glad there was one family there in blue with their mouths taped. I got to explain to Gretchen that they were there because they too felt strongly about what was happening. It was just wonderful to see people actually get excited about what our politicians are doing instead of just grumbling quietly at home about what our lawmakers are forcing on us."
And then it started to get REALLY exciting.
Melissa Nicholson was one of the women who wrote to Senator Davis with her personal story and watched the filibuster from the gallery:
"I received a text at work that day that she was reading my testimony, and butterflies bounced around my stomach. It was so exciting she was using testimony from Texans to get through the filibuster. It was a message that she is about the people, not about Wendy Davis.”
While Nicholson says she and others silently listened to Davis’ speech, by the time the Republicans began calling the vote last Tuesday night, the crowd erupted. She describes:
“It was like a force of nature could not stop the energy as we collectively roared. We could not help it. We had been involved in more than 30 hours taken out of our lives, used extreme self-restraint for days and days and this was the question that felt like what we all wanted to express: why won't the male lawmakers view women as human beings? And, treat us with respect? Isn’t that what this bill is about? Trusting women to make choices about their own bodies, without a lawmaker intervening? And, that, is the answer. The roar continued and our excitement grew as the minutes passed. We could no longer suppress ourselves. We are women, hear us roar."
The roars of frustration, outrage, and courage became so loud that the Republicans could not hear to take their vote last Tuesday night. It was just before midnight, and the Republicans had to vote before midnight in order to pass the bill. They yelled for order - they threatened to have the gallery cleared. Finally they pushed through their vote and passed it - at 12:03. The Republicans insisted it was not midnight. They changed the time stamp from 12:03 to a time before midnight. Everyone went home disappointed. But the Democratic lawmakers pushed the issue through the night to prove that the vote was taken after midnight and the Republicans had to admit that the bill did not legally pass.
By the time the bill came up for vote a second time, last night, almost 2,000 ordinary women from across the state showed up again to give testimony on the bill. Less than 100 were allowed to speak. Austin musician Elizabeth McQueen was there. "They refused to hear debate or amendments from representatives on the committee, called a roll call vote (to move HB2 out of committee and to the house floor) while ignoring the protests of Representative Sylvester of Houston." The vote passed 8-3.
Most people realize that this bill is going to ulitmately pass both chambers of the Texas legislature. The Republicans have the votes to pass it, and the time to avoid Democratic stall tactics. Plus, they clearly do not care to hear the voices of the opponents of the bill. Our only hope is to continue fighting, and try to vote in lawmakers who will also fight the implementation of this bill. We remain positive, though, and still appreciate being a part of this exciting political process.
We are determined to continue trying to have our voices heard on this.
We feel passionately that lower income women, and women in rural areas, MUST have access to life saving health care.
We do not accept a future where we do not have the right, as women, to decide what our lives look like. We insist on being able to make our reporductive decisions privately, with our familes and doctors. As Texas women, we deserve the same rights as other American women provided under the U.S. Constitution.
We will continue to fight to preserve that federal Constitutional right our mothers secured for us over 40 years ago. We will continue to send the message to the Capitol, loud and clear: Don't mess with Texas women!
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