Texas abortion restrictions headed for approval in state Senate

AUSTIN, Texas Thu Jul 11, 2013 5:18pm EDT

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AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A Republican proposal that would ban most abortions in Texas after 20 weeks of pregnancy moved toward a possible final vote in the state Senate Friday, and Democrats fiercely opposed to the measure conceded they will not be able to stop it.

A state Senate panel on Thursday cleared the way for debate on the floor of the Senate on Friday, where Democratic Senator Wendy Davis drew national attention last month by staging a filibuster on the final day of a special session.

Her gambit ran out the legislative clock and forced Republican supporters to call a new 30-day special session to try to pass the abortion restrictions.

"We do not have the numbers to stop it," said bill opponent Senator Royce West, a Democrat. "There's no way in the world that you can filibuster for the rest of the month."

In addition to the ban on abortions after 20 weeks, the bill would impose strict standards on abortion clinics that critics said could force dozens of facilities in Texas to close. Supporters of the bill say no clinics would be forced to shut down.

A state Senate committee voted 6-3 in favor of the bill on Thursday, and several activists opposed to the measure walked out of the hearing room singing, "We're Not Going to Take It."

The House of Representatives has already passed the measure.

The campaign to restrict abortion in Texas is part of a national effort by conservatives that has led to dozens of state curbs on the right to abortion in recent years.

On Thursday in North Carolina, debate was raging on the floor of the House of Representatives over a bill that would increase some safety standards on the state's abortion clinics and prohibit government-administered insurance plans from paying for abortions, except when the life of the mother is at risk.

A vote was expected later Thursday in the North Carolina House, which would send the measure to the Senate for its approval. The legislation is a watered-down version of a failed bill earlier this month that was almost identical to the proposal in Texas, and drew opposition from the state's Republican Governor, Pat McCrory.

Thousands of Texans who support or oppose the bill have converged on the statehouse this week for marches and rallies, with opponents often holding signs referring to the legislation as a "war on women."

"This is not a war on women," Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, a Republican, said after the panel vote on Thursday. "This bill is trying to correct a war on babies that's taking place."

The 20-week provision is based on controversial research suggesting fetuses feel pain at that point in the pregnancy.

"Recent and rigorous scientific reviews have concluded that there is no evidence of fetal perception of pain until 29 weeks at the earliest," the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote in a letter published as an ad in the Austin American-Statesman this week.

The letter also said the proposed requirements for abortion facilities are unnecessary.

Twelve states have passed a version of the 20-week ban, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a group favoring the right to abortion. Courts have blocked the laws in three of those states.

West predicted the Texas measure is also heading for a court battle.

"As soon as it's signed by the governor, it's going to be challenged," West said.

Supporters of the Texas proposal, including former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, held a press conference on Thursday to urge its passage.

"Texas is the center of the pro-life debate in the country right now," said Santorum, a former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.

Abortion provider Planned Parenthood on Thursday organized a rally in Washington against abortion restrictions such as those under consideration in Texas and North Carolina.

(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks; Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune and Andre Grenon)

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