AUSTIN, Texas » The first day of the legislative special session was marked by chanting, shouting, singing, praying, crucifixes, wire hangers, posters, flags, music, free ice cream and a whole lot of abortion talk.
Buoyed by last week’s spontaneous defeat of legislation that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks, about 5,000 abortion rights supporters converged Monday on the Capitol to celebrate their victory and dig in for the next round. Their message to Republicans: we won before, and we’ll win again.
“You were at the crux of a turning point in Texas history,” said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who had staged a nearly 13-hour filibuster on the bill.
Last week, with the bill’s passage close at hand, the Senate gallery was mostly packed with people against the legislation, onlookers who derailed the proceedings by screaming and disrupting them as time ran out.
As the new session begins, abortion opponents say they won’t let that happen again. Using social media to rally their own troops, they’ve launched a campaign to help pass the bill.
Abortion opponents will rally at the Capitol at 2 p.m. today to pack the Senate Affairs Committee hearing room and sign up to speak in favor of the bill. They are trying to secure private parking at area churches and businesses, then bus people to the Capitol grounds, according to Texas Right to Life. Abortion rights supporters also plan to pack the hearing.
As protesters arrived Monday morning, rope lines and chains cordoned off the doorways to the House and Senate, and spectators were pushed back from the entrances to both galleries as well. Foot traffic was limited to half the stairways to funnel people away from the gallery entrances. At least eight state troopers stood in front of the Senate chamber. Officers on horseback stood outside with the crowds, their horses’ eyes covered by clear shields.
During the rally, Democrats crowded onto a packed podium on the Capitol steps to make speeches and urged abortionrights supporters to maintain the momentum they’ve gained. Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines revved up the crowd with the song “Not Ready to Play Nice.” Wearing orange shirts and hats, people held signs reading “Republicans Can’t Defetus,” and “Stop the War on Women,” signed thank-you cards to Democratic leaders and handed out memorabilia.
“Want a uterus sticker?” a young woman said, filing through throngs of people surrounding the podium. “Anyone want a uterus?” Free water and ice cream were distributed as people stood sweating in the sun. Many sought refuge in the shade of trees and umbrellas.
Austin teacher Stacey Smith showed up to oppose the bill, saying that politicians were more concerned with preventing abortion than caring for children once they are born. Schools, insurance plans and child protection agencies are underfunded, she said.
“We see abused and neglected children every day,” she said. “Until Texas gets right with that, they have no right wasting taxpayer money on this debate.”
The crowds cheered wildly as state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, praised them for helping kill the controversial bill, and as state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, encouraged them to continue to stand by the rights of women.
“Last week you stood with Wendy,” Van de Putte said. “This week you stand with Texas women. Don’t you ever sit down.”
Though vastly outnumbered, a group of abortion opponents gathered in the Rotunda to sing chorus after chorus of “Amazing Grace.” They held crucifixes over their heads, prayed together and wore red tape with the word “life” over their mouths to represent that the unborn have no voice in the abortion debate.
“Doing the right thing isn’t always the popular thing,” said Noel Adams of Cedar Park, who came to support the bill.
Gia Talentine, a mother of four who lives near Lockhart and opposes abortion, said the thousands of orange-clad supporters of abortion rights aren’t representative of Texas. Talentine said she was frustrated that all of the shouting precluded any effort for the two sides to talk and find common ground.
“People who are pro-life, we’re peaceful,” said Cherie Mixon of San Antonio. “We met every shout with love. We prayed for them. We prayed for the Legislature. We have to speak for those who can’t speak.”
Both sides say they will stay with the fight until the end. But for now, abortion rights advocates feel like they have the upper hand.
“Today is different, don’t you feel it?” Davis said. “We feel hope.”
American-Statesman staff writers Jonathan Tilove, Tim Eaton, Chuck Lindell and Kate Alexander contributed to this report.