Senator fails in 10-hour filibuster abortion bid, but wins overall

Mammoth filibuster: Wendy Davis.
Mammoth filibuster: Wendy Davis. Photo: AP

A marathon effort by a Texas state Senator to block new abortion limits fell short after she had stood and talked for more than 10 hours without food or toilet breaks.

Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat, who was a single mother at the age of 19, pursued what would have to be a nearly 13-hour filibuster to block a bill that would close almost every abortion clinic in the second most populous US state.

A filibuster is a type of parliamentary procedure where debate is extended, allowing one or more members to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal.

Opponents to an abortion bill sit in the senate chamber as Wendy Davis speaks.
Opponents to an abortion bill sit in the senate chamber as Wendy Davis speaks. Photo: AP

To reach the midnight goal, Davis, 50, was unable to sit, lean on her desk or take any breaks, including to eat meals or to use the bathroom. Her chair was removed. She remained unfazed when a male protester stood and shouted, "Abortion is genocide!" 

But Davis, a Democrat, was ruled to have departed from the subject of her filibuster talk. The ruling on Tuesday drew jeers and chants from hundreds of people watching from the gallery.

If Davis had succeeded in talking until midnight, the legislative session would have ended without a vote on the abortion measure.

Instead, Texas Republicans passed the new abortion restrictions as hundreds of protesters screamed from the gallery. 

The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires that all procedures take place in a surgical centre.

Doctors who perform abortions would also need admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. The surgical centre requirement would shut down 37 of Texas' 42 abortion clinics.  


'Dirtiest' fight

‘‘It’s the dirtiest political fighting I’ve ever seen,’’ Cecile Richard, president of Planned Parenthood, said in an interview before Dewhurst’s final ruling.

‘‘They have used bogus points of order and shut down key testimony, all of this after they couldn’t get this bill passed during the regular special session,’’ she said.

Long stand: Wendy Davis is not allowed to sit or lean.
Long stand: Wendy Davis is not allowed to sit or lean. Photo: AP

At about 10pm, local time, Davis was ruled out of order by the state's Republican Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, because she had begun talking about another abortion measure, passed in 2011, that requires a woman seeking the procedure to first have an ultrasound examination and be given an image of the fetus from the exam.

It marked the third sustained challenge to letting Davis continue, and Dewhurst ended her marathon soliloquy, saying she had broken Senate rules.

The debate caught the attention of the nation, including President Barack Obama, who tweeted:

'Abuse of power'

At midnight, the Republican-controlled Senate ended the 30-day special session. In the opening remarks of her filibuster, Davis called Republican efforts to pass the bill a "raw abuse of power".

A filibuster is a type of parliamentary procedure where debate is extended, allowing one or more members to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal.

Texas is one of several states taking aim at the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1973 that made abortion legal and set off a raging debate on the issue that continues today.

North Dakota is another, and abortion rights advocates on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging two new laws there that impose the nation's toughest abortion restrictions. The lawsuit seeks to block a measure that would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, when a fetal heartbeat can first be detected.

The Texas bill would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and force many clinics that perform the procedure to upgrade their facilities. Doctors would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 48 kilometres — a challenge in rural communities across the vast state.

A woman living along the Mexico border or in West Texas would have to drive for hours to obtain an abortion if the law passes.

"If this passes, abortion would be virtually banned in the state of Texas, and many women could be forced to resort to dangerous and unsafe measures," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Loud applause

Democrats chose Davis to lead the effort to block the bill because of her background as a woman who had her first child when she was still a teenager and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.

Davis, wearing pink sneakers for the hours of standing, was greeted by loud applause and cheers of "Go Wendy!" from hundreds of abortion rights activists.

She planned to use up large chunks of time reading into the record testimony from women and doctors who would be impacted by the changes. During one story describing a woman's difficult pregnancy, Davis choked up several times and wiped away tears.

Davis, who stays in shape by jogging and cycling, tried to stay comfortable by shifting her weight from hip to hip and slowly walking around her desk while reading notes from a large binder on her desk.

Bloomberg, AP

UPDATE: The bill has failed. 

After Davis finished, crowd protests continued inside parliament. Eventually they were quietened, but, as the Huffington Post reported, the outside protesters' cries "continued to echo inside the chamber - and over a livestream watched by thousands around the world - until after the midnight deadline passed.

"Although some Republican lawmakers later claimed the bill had passed in time, Democrats denied that the vote was completed before the clock ran out on the session.

"A time stamp showing the vote completed after midnight was the deciding factor. 'This will not become law,' Sen. John Whitmire, told The Austin American-Statesman." 

As Cecile Richards, of Planned Parenthood, tweeted: