Reproductive rights advocates flooded the Capitol building to protest new legislation designed to restrict access to female reproductive services.
AUSTIN — For the fifth consecutive week, thousands of reproductive rights advocates from across Texas flooded the Capitol building over the weekend to protest a wave of new legislation designed to severely restrict access to female reproductive services.
SB 1 and HB 2, recent anti-abortion laws that have sparked statewide popular protests, will result in the closure of 37 of the 42 facilities providing abortion in Texas, ban all abortions 20 weeks after gestation and limit access to medicine-induced abortions, among other consequences.
Throughout the day, swarms of protesters saturated the halls of the Capitol and the outside grounds, demanding a stop to the legislative onslaught against abortion rights that have been championed by state Republicans and supported by the Christian right.
Late Friday night, the Texas Senate passed SB 1 with a vote of 19-11. Democrats put forward 20 amendments in an attempt to mitigate the harshness of the bill and to delay the vote as long as possible, but they were all shot down through party-line votes.
Republicans “listening a little closer” to God
Republicans drew support from the Christian anti-abortion movement, articulating many of their arguments in religious terms.
Demonstrators dressed in blue came to back the legislation and raised placards with Biblical verses scrawled across them. Inside the Capitol building, others staged silent prayer circles amid the abortion rights protesters.
Others covered their mouths with duct tape bearing the word “LIFE” and wore stickers that read “Abortion hurts.”
Inside the chamber, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), said, “What choice does the baby have? Who speaks for the baby?” He suggested that senators who backed SB 1 were “listening a little closer” to God than the opposition, according to the Texas Tribune.
“Don’t question the faith of any member,” Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), responded angrily.
Testifying for “women who couldn’t be here”
Several thousand testified in the state legislature about the harsh effects of the bills. “I testified twice — once in front of the House Committee [two weeks earlier] and once in front of the Senate Committee,” Sydney Casey, a 24-year-old student of Women’s Health Studies, told Mint Press News.
Casey, who also works for the Lilith Fund, an organization that provides financial assistance to marginalized women in need of abortions and other reproductive services, has attended all of the protests over the last month.
“I focused on being a voice for women who couldn’t be here because it’s too far,” she said. “And of course there are women who live on my block [in Austin] that simply can’t afford to take off work to be here.”
State Democrats organized a statewide bus tour to hold satellite rallies in cities such as Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston, among others. “Democrats have been hugely cooperative, and it’s been awesome,” Casey said.
Among those Democrats is state Sen. Wendy Davis, who gained national notoriety after she successfully staged an 11-hour filibuster — made successful by the crowd’s shouting to prevent the vote before the midnight deadline — during a special legislative session three weeks ago. Republican Gov. Rick Perry responded by saying it was too bad “[Davis] hasn’t learned from her own example,” referring to her having given birth to a child as a teenager.
Rep. Bill Zedler (R) offered inflammatory comments on his Twitter page after the people’s filibuster:
We had terrorist in the Texas State Senate opposing SB 5
— Bill Zedler (@Bill_Zedler) June 26, 2013
Not Democrats, but “the people of Texas”
Some doubt state Democrats’ effectiveness and genuineness. “Historically, Democrats have been very passive on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights,” Katie Feyh, a feminist activist from the International Socialist Organization, told Mint Press News.
“They have asked for our votes and asked us to wait patiently while the right wing has confidently marched on, chipping away at our rights both at the state and the national level,” she said.
While Sen. Davis and others have provided “an example of what pro-choice politicians should do and should have been doing for many years now,” Feyh says they “were emboldened precisely because the people of Texas were angry and watching.”
Just two weeks ago, over 10,000 people assembled, marking the largest protest the state has seen since hundreds of thousands took the streets in 2006 on behalf of immigration reform.
Activists hope that the resistance displayed over the last month will usher in a new era of political participation and mass mobilization. Reproductive rights organizations, such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, have worked in tandem with political parties and activist networks to keep up the momentum.
“The people who came out at the protests will never be the same,” Feyh assessed. “They have witnessed the limitations of the legislative process.” Rather than accept defeat, she said, it’s time to “see the possibilities for building a sustainable abortion rights movement that can win back what we have lost.”
Another organization, Rise Up Texas, was created as a result of the June 25 demonstration. “It was established as the grassroots civil response for those interested in expanding the tactics to include nonviolent civil disobedience” and other forms of resistance, Chris Ledesma and Marianna Anaya told Mint Press News in an interview.
The goal of Rise Up Texas, which also established a Spanish-language sister organization, is to “highlight the effects on marginalized communities,” such as people of color and LGBTQ communities.
“We want to reframe the conversation around these bills to show it’s not a binary issue — ‘pro-choice or pro-life’ — because the areas where clinics are being closed disproportionately affect people of color communities and prevent access to a wide array of services that aren’t abortion,” Ledesma and Anaya explained.
Officers confiscate tampons, move in “without provocation”
Police forces were at the Capitol in heavy numbers on Friday. Department of Public Safety officers were instructed to confiscate tampons, feminine pads and diabetic supplies of those entering the building. The DPS stated early in the day that it would confiscate any items “that potentially could be thrown at lawmakers,” the Huffington Post reported.
Following the vote on Friday night, dozens of abortion rights advocates attempted to stage a sit-in. After protesters sat down and ‘mike-checked’ a statement, “officers moved in without giving clear orders to disperse,” according to Ledesma, who was zip-tied and put in a police van before being released without charge.
At least one person, a female from Rise Up Texas, was tased “without provocation.”
“We put our bodies on the line,” Anaya said, “because some of the people most affected by this legislation — like undocumented communities — don’t have this option.”
Another three women attempted to chain themselves to a banister and sing songs in protest. Though two were removed and arrested before they could fasten the locks, one succeeded. Officers had to bring in bolt-cutters to remove the chain before they could arrest her.
Photos and videos also show officers aggressively removing a young man from the sit-in, resulting in his head being slammed on the floor. Thirteen people were arrested in total, one of whom was not from Rise Up Texas.
Protesters maintain that they were peaceful and acting in the spirit of nonviolent protest. “Despite all the violence against women on the Senate floor, the mainstream media is trying to portray our actions as some kind of violent protest,” Anaya said.
The end of “safe, legal abortion”
Similar laws are being proposed and passed across the United States. The Williston Herald recently reported that thus far this year “17 states have enforced 45 new abortion restrictions,” though new laws in some states were subsequently struck down. Along with Texas, states such as North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have passed the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the nation.
“It is clear that the agenda in Texas and across the nation is to effectively end safe, legal abortions — which of course won’t end abortions, but rather will drive them underground,” Feyh said. “Texas is hardly a special case. It’s more of a test case.”
Organizations and activists have called for a National Day of Action on July 15, including rallies and marches to be held in dozens of cities and towns across the country.
Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared at Al Jazeera English, Truthout, Electronic Intifada and others. Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_