Wendy Davis won the battle, but Rick Perry won the war. Today, the governor signs the omnibus pro-life bill that, for at least a few weeks, drove thousands of protesters to the statehouse and put a national spotlight on Texas.
Strangely, it came down to the issue of redistricting. The legislature didn’t pass needed redistricting legislation during the normal session, which led Perry to call a special session. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst sent Perry a letter requesting that a special session address, among other matters, pro-life issues. Perry agreed.
It’s important to note that the pro-life legislation, to have a chance of passage, had to come up in a special session. During the regular session, a bill must win support from two-thirds of the Texas Senate to go to the floor. Republicans have a majority in the Senate, but it’s not quite big enough for that.
“The Senate’s usually where super-conservative stuff goes to die,” says one Republican Texas consultant. But special sessions don’t have the two-thirds requirement.
It’s unclear when Perry decided not to run for a fourth term as governor, but this special session was his last chance to pass muscular pro-life legislation. And if he’s mulling a 2016 presidential bid — and many Austin politicos are confident he is — then signing off on this bill will boost his social-conservative bona fides.
It’s also important to remember that Texas had its own version of Kermit Gosnell: Douglas Karpen, an abortion doctor who stands accused of killing babies after they were born alive. The chilling narrative was in the background of all the proceedings, and gave pro-life legislators extra impetus to restrict abortion. Elizabeth Graham, of Texas Right to Life, tells me that the provisions of the omnibus legislation would prevent future murders of that sort.
The Republican consultant says that the muscular nature of the legislation is a credit, at least in part, to the pro-life protesters who came to the statehouse. Thousands of pro-choice activists came to Austin wearing orange shirts, but pro-life activists had a strong presence, too, especially when the House had its second reading of the bill. “I think Republicans are far more susceptible to the feeling of popular pressure,” he says. “I think they’re much more likely to cave in to what they feel are popular demands, so I think it was important that the pro-life people showed up.”
Austin is liberal, especially by Texas standards. “In other big cities, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, there’s not this population of cropped haircuts and aggressive tattoos and poor hygiene,” the consultant says. “Those people only really exist in the city of Austin, and they were all at the capitol in the last few weeks making a lot of noise.”
The national attention the protesters drew makes it especially significant, the consultant says, that the legislation passed without any amendments that weaken it.
State Representative James White, a Republican from East Texas, tells me that though the Texas legislature has had a pro-life majority for at least ten years, it takes substantial behind-the-scenes effort to get this kind of bill passed. The legislature passed sonogram legislation in 2011, after trying in previous sessions. “Nothing happens on edict, and it takes a while to just get folks on board,” he tells me. But this time around, everything came together. “I’d just say it was a perfect storm,” he says.
Graham tells me that the legislation draws from the fetal-pain bill that passed the U.S. House in June. “The pain bill is the next logical step after sonograms that draws attention to the humanity of the unborn child,” she says. “And so with each piece of legislation, you have a regulatory-enforcement piece, and then there’s a piece that has to recognize that the preborn child is a victim of abortion, as well as the woman.”
She says that adding language to tighten regulations of clinics was Perry’s idea, and Perry is expected to sign the bill in short order. Fewer abortions will be performed in Texas, Graham predicts, after the bill is signed into law. If so, Perry can add it to his list of accomplishments as governor. Not that he’s counting.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.