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Texas Gov. Calls Special Session, Reigniting Abortion Debate


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The battle over a new abortion bill in Texas will resume now that Governor Rick Perry has called a second special legislative session. It's scheduled to begin on Monday. This past Tuesday night, an audience far beyond Texas watched as a Democratic state senator filibustered an anti-abortion bill for 12 hours. When Republicans cut her off, spectators jeered and the chamber erupted in pandemonium.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, when the gavel opens the next session, memories of rancor will be fresh.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The National Right to Life organization kicked off its annual convention in Dallas today, and its first speaker was Texas Governor Rick Perry, a conservative Christian and anti-abortion stalwart.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Particularly glad to see all of you this week, of all weeks.

BURNETT: It was Perry who put a stricter abortion bill on the legislative agenda, and today, Tuesday night's brawl at the capitol was very much on his mind.

PERRY: They demonstrated that even if they lose at the ballot box, even if they come up short in attempts to stall on the Senate floor, they'll resort to mob tactics to force their minority agenda on the people of Texas.

BURNETT: Perry went on to say that the now-famous filibustering Democratic senator, Wendy Davis, an athlete and Harvard-trained lawyer, has not learned from her own example. She started working at 14 and went on to become a divorced mother at 19. Davis countered, called Perry's statement, small words without dignity. Davis' political capital spiked when she filibustered for 12 hours in pink Mizuno running shoes and a back brace. Mindful that the abortion bill will top the next 30-day special session, Davis told member station KERA she knows this week's victory will be short-lived.

STATE SENATOR WENDY DAVIS: I think they're going to cram this thing down the throats of Texans, and sadly, women in Texas will live with the consequences of what they're doing.

BURNETT: Senate Bill 5 would make abortions illegal after 20 weeks, instead of the normal 24 weeks, and it would require abortion facilities to upgrade to ambulatory surgical centers and require abortion clinic doctors to gain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Abortion rights supporters say these two last measures will force most Texas abortion clinics to close. Tuesday night's session grew more and more acrimonious as Republicans attempted to bring the abortion bill to a vote and Democrats stalled for time.

Here's Democratic Senator Leticia Van de Putte.

STATE SENATOR LETICIA VAN DE PUTTE: At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?


BURNETT: The ruckus kept up for more than 15 minutes, even as state troopers attempted to clear the galleries. It was so loud that the Senate president could not restore order and the clock ran out at midnight. What's certain is that Republican senators have the votes to pass a new law that further restricts abortion in Texas. They made the mistake of bringing up the bill too late in the last session, which opened the door to a filibuster on the last day.

State Senator Kirk Watson of Austin is head of the Democratic caucus.

STATE SENATOR KIRK WATSON: I don't think they'll make the same mistake about waiting as long in terms of bringing that bill to the body. The truth is there's a high likelihood they will pass this bad legislation.

BURNETT: The memory of Tuesday night will weigh heavily on the minds of Republican leadership when they open the new session on Monday. Not only do they want to erase the spectacle of a free-for-all inside the Texas Senate, but the mannerly, patrician president of the Senate, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, has to prove that he can maintain order if he wants to win re-election against his newly energized opponents.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.