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House Committee Quietly Approves Anti-Abortion Bills

Todd Wiseman / Jennifer Whitney for Texas Tribune

After abruptly ending hours of public testimony that went into the wee hours of Friday morning, the House State Affairs Committee reconvened on Friday and quietly approved House Bill 60, its companion, Senate Bill 5 — omnibus abortion restriction legislation — and a standalone measure to ban abortion at 20 weeks gestation, House Bill 16.

With the special session coming to an end on Tuesday, opponents of the measures say the decision by Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, to end to the hearing near 4 a.m. — before hundreds of reproductive rights advocates could testify — may open the door to kill the legislation. 

They also say their efforts to delay the legislation could enable senators to filibuster it when it returns to that chamber for final approval.

"We had a lot of impassioned testimony, which is the public's right," Cook told reporters when the committee adjourned. "Your legislative body weighs very seriously people's concerns."

The only committee member present that voted against the three bills, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, chairwoman of the House women’s health caucus, called the decision to approve the bills despite the testimony of advocates a political farce.

"We all know that abortion will continue to happen, the question is will it be safe and legal," she said. "It's all about appeals to the right flank of the Republican party."

HB 60, authored by state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, would ban abortions after 20 weeks, require abortions to be performed at ambulatory surgical centers, require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and require doctors administering abortion-inducing drugs to do so in person. The Senate approved its companion, SB 5, authored by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, without the 20 week abortion ban on Tuesday. The House committee adopted a substitute of the legislation that added the measure back.

While abortion opponents argue the bills would improve women’s safety, reproductive rights advocates argue the bills would close 37 of the state’s 42 facilities that perform abortions, effectively cutting off legal access to the procedure and endangering women’s health.

Hundreds of reproductive rights advocates fought to delay the bills by taking public testimony into the wee hours of Friday morning. Cook cut off public testimony near 4 a.m. Friday morning with approximately 300 advocates left to testify, after warning the testimony had become repetitive and unhelpful to the committee’s decision-making.

“I’ve been getting calls from people that were so upset at having been cut off. They thought this really was a Democratic process,” Farrar said before the meeting. “People travelled from all over the state and just arbitrarily the chair decided it was going to end.”

Farrar and reproductive rights advocates allege Cook’s decision to end testimony could endanger the legislation. House members may be able to kill the bill on a point of order if the committee did not follow proper legislative procedures when they ended testimony. If approved, advocates could also sue the state and seek to overturn the legislation, arguing the state ignored democratic processes by denying them the opportunity to speak on the bill.

Hegar would not comment on whether he was concerned the bill was in danger.

“I don’t focus on what the House is doing, because I don’t have a vote over there,” he said before the meeting.

Shefali Luthra contributed reporting to this story.

Becca Aaronson develops data interactives and reports for The Texas Tribune. After an internship in fall 2010, she was hired by the Tribune to help cover the 82nd legislative session. She previously interned at the Houston Chronicle. Becca is a native of Austin who graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., with a degree in cultural theory.
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