AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Thousands of orange-clad demonstrators packed the halls and grounds of the Texas Capitol on Monday to sing, chant and shout their opposition to sweeping new abortion limits the Republican-led Legislature was all but certain to pass after failing to do so before the clock ran out on the legislative session that ended last week.
It was the largest demonstration at the Capitol in recent memory, with the Department of Public Safety pegging the crowd size at about 3,000 by mid-morning and The Associated Press later estimating it had grown to at least 5,000 participants at its peak. Scattered among the sea of orange were clusters of blue-clad counter-demonstrators who prayed, clutched crosses, sang and watched the debate from the Senate gallery, but they were far outnumbered by opponents of the legislation.
The stakes and fervor on both sides have only gotten higher in six days since midnight protesters and the filibuster by Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth ran out the clock on senators set to approve the new abortion limits. Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back for another special session with abortion on the top of the agenda.
Amid unrelenting sunshine and temperatures above 90 degrees, Davis, who catapulted into the national spotlight with her 12-hour filibuster last week, wore a bright orange dress and heels — not her tennis shoes from the filibuster.
“You were at the crux of a turning point in Texas history,” said Davis, who’s being urged to run for statewide office.
“Today is different,” she added, as the crowd chanted, “Wendy! Wendy! Wendy!” ”Don’t you feel it? We feel hope.”
Lawmakers completed their regular session May 27 but Perry called a 30-day special session that ran through midnight June 25. Davis strapped on her running shoes and stood for more than 12 hours, attempting to talk until the clock ran out on the bill. Senate Republicans used parliamentary tactics to silence her eventually, but hundreds of protests in the gallery screamed and cheered so much that all work on the floor below halted until it was too late.
Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dismissed last week’s protesters as an “unruly mob,” and many in Monday’s crowd wore T-shirts that read “unruly mob.”
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the San Antonio Democrat whose pointed question last week sparked the raucous cheering, told Monday’s protesters that the issue was personal.
“Ladies, would you like to have your next OB-GYN exam on the Senate floor?” Van de Putte asked, to which the crowds shouted back, “No!” ”Then politicians shouldn’t be making women’s health decisions for us.”
Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, a Texan who famously took a public swipe at then-President George W. Bush over the Iraq War in 2003, sang the national anthem and the song she wrote in response to backlash to her comment to Bush, “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.” The crowd around her waved dozens of handmade signs with messages including, “Separate Your Church from My Uterus,” and a plane circled above pulling the banner: “Stand With Wendy.”
Inside, state Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican and emergency room physician, wore her doctor’s coat and scrubs as she spoke in favor of the bill, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks and impose new restrictions on providers that could force all but five clinics statewide to close.
“I am thankful I am a voice in the government to stand for life,” Campbell said.
Some blue-clad supporters of the proposed restrictions held a prayer vigil near the Senate gallery as nearly 75 people recited the Lord’s Prayer.
In other hallways, anti-abortion activists sang “Amazing Grace,” and were met with jeers from abortion-rights demonstrators who chanted: “My body, my life, my choice to decide!” Some women had coat-hangers affixed with signs reading “Not a surgical instrument.”
Jan Weiser, 65, of Austin, held a sign proclaiming, “Life begins with a new governor.” Weiser said she was energized by Perry’s comments after the vote wondering what if Davis’ mom had had an abortion.
“That was unnecessary,” Weiser said. “That wasn’t something a gentleman says.”
Two counter-protesters stood near the crowds outside, wearing blue and holding up a large photo of an aborted and bloody fetus.
“This is so they can see the face of abortion,” said one of the protesters, Sean Ollech, 32, of Austin. “This is what’s going on right now across Texas.”
Ollech and Phil Sevilla, a 62-year-old from San Antonio, were ringed by mounted police officers and about 30 people wearing orange.
There were no arrests or any incidents of violence reported. At least 100 officers, some carrying helmets and truncheons, cased the grounds, including mounted police officers from Houston.
The state House and Senate got to work shortly after the rally dispersed, going into session briefly in front of a full, calm gallery of both bill supporters and opponents. Hundreds of people, most of them wearing orange, were still waiting in line when both recessed until next week.
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