AUSTIN, Texas - More than 2,300 people signed up to testify about proposed abortion restrictions before a Texas House committee on Tuesday, but rules imposed by the panel's top Republican mean no more than 100 members of the public would get a chance to speak.
State Rep. Byron Cook imposed an eight-hour limit on the hearing, with each person getting just three minutes before the committee, and he chose a room with only 67 seats. The restrictions come after a similar hearing two weeks ago turned into a 12-hour marathon when 700 protesters slowed the passage of the bill in the first special session. A Democratic filibuster and an angry crowd stopped the bill from becoming law a few days later leading GOP Gov. Rick Perry to call the Legislature back for a second special session.
With Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, the most Democrats can hope to do is slow the bill and create a legislative record that could aid a lawsuit should the proposal become law. Houston Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner asked permission to have a court reporter record the hearing's testimony, but Cook denied it.
Democrats questioned Cook about why he chose such a small room, more than a third of which was reserved for staff, lawmakers and media.
"We wanted to ensure the maximum security for every person who is here," the Corsicana Republican said. Cook also said he was limiting testimony because hundreds of people had already testified during the regular and first special sessions.
Reps. Jessica Farrar and Sylvester Turner, both Houston Democrats, asked Cook to schedule additional hearings to allow everyone a chance to speak, but Cook refused. After Democrats successfully ran out the clock of the first special session, Republicans appeared set on passing the measure as quickly as possible in the new 30-day special session.
Live video of the hearing was fed into nine other hearing rooms, where demonstrators filled up more than 1,200 additional seats and overflowed into hallways. They appeared to be equally split between supporters of the bill wearing blue and opponents wearing orange.
House Bill 2 would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require that the procedure be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, mandate that doctors who perform abortions obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles and that even nonsurgical abortions take place in a surgical center.
Only five out of 42 clinics in Texas qualify as ambulatory surgical centers and they are in major metropolitan areas. Many clinics would need to relocate to meet ventilation requirements and to have the space required for operating rooms and hallways.
Similar measures have passed in other states, but many are tied up in court. Mississippi's only abortion clinic remains open pending a federal lawsuit over the requirement for doctors to have admitting privileges.
Rep. Jody Laubenberg, R-Parker, insisted the bill is intended "to protect the health and safety of every woman who undergoes an abortion." Under questioning from Farrar, she refused to answer whether the state had data to show that women need the additional regulations.
Farrar then asked Ellen Cooper, the top compliance officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services, if there was any record of complications or deaths in abortion clinics that would suggest the regulations were needed. She replied no.
The Texas Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology both oppose the bill.
Stacey Wilson, assistant general counsel for the Texas Hospital Association, noted that admitting privileges are not required for any other procedure performed outside a hospital. Because hospitals generally do not perform elective abortions, either for religious or political reasons, they're unlikely to grant privileges to a doctor for elective abortions, she said.
Turner said the law, therefore, would "outlaw abortions across the board" and fail constitutional muster.
Lt. Gov. David has acknowledged that the ultimate goal is to shutter abortion clinics, though Laubenberg insisted otherwise.
Most of the public speaking in support of the bill echoed the call to ban all abortions. Opponents called the bill an attempt to stop abortions through over-regulation.