Wednesday, 26 June 2013

on Abortion and American Democracy

Tuesday the 25th of June saw a Special Session of the Texas Senate,  a session that had been called to hear bill SB5 after previous delays.

A brief summary of SB5 from NBC DFW

'[SB 5] would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and force many clinics that perform the procedure to upgrade their facilities and be classified as ambulatory surgical centers. Also, doctors would be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles — a tall order in rural communities.'

In practise as many as 42 of the states 47 licensed abortion clinics would be forced to close as they do not or can not afford to comply with the terms of SB5. The remaining 5 clinics would be concentrated in the eastern parts of the state in urban centres. Those clinics that remain open would have a limit of 20 weeks on procedures.
Access to legal and safe abortion in the state of Texas would be restricted to those women who can afford it, those women who can get appointments in the few remaining clinics, and those women who can travel to the available clinics. It would also mean that women who needed an abortion post 20 weeks, whatever their personal circumstances, would be denied. Furthermore many, if not all, of the affected clinics do not solely provide abortions; they are clinics providing a number of gynaecological services including but not limited to pregnancy testing, birth control, cervical smears, gynaecological examinations, STI testing and pre-natal health care. They are commonly referred to as 'well woman cenres'. If the centres close then all these services will be lost and the worst effected are those on a low income and those in rural areas, in other words, those who need those services the most.

Following earlier delays in the normal senate session a Special Session had been called. Tuesday was the last day of this Special Session. Due to the Texas Senate having a Republican majority, the Republicans of course having a loud anti-abortion voice, the democrats felt that the vote needed to be blocked at this stage to allow for further debate and examination of the Bill. This meant a filibuster.

Starting at shortly after 11am on Tuesday the 25th Senator Wendy Davis began talking about issues surrounding SB5. And she continued talking. In order to block the bill Senator Davis would have to keep talking until midnight so that the special session would close with the vote being held; she was embarking on a 13 hour filibuster. The Texas Senate had already been surrounded by thousands of 'No to SB5' demonstrators and on Tuesday the public galleries filled up with people supporting Senator Davis and opposing SB5. The Office of Senator Davis made a public appeal for people to submit their opinions and stories regarding safe and legal abortion, that Senator Davis may read them out loud as part of her relevant material.

The Texas Senate you see requires that the material spoken during the filibuster must remain germane to the topic of the debate, it must be relevant at all times to the bill. And so the stories came in.
Stories about mothers and grandmothers who underwent 'backyard' abortions; stories of women sent across state lines to have an abortion; stories of people glad their mother had an abortion other wise they would not be alive today; stories of illegal abortions with life threatening consequences; stories of denied abortions with fatal consequences.
Stories of horror and dismay that access to safe and legal abortion could once more be restricted leading to more of these stories.

These contributions weren't from young liberal Democrats either; they came from fiscal conservatives and die hard Republicans. They came from men speaking of their wives mother's and sisters. They came from young women who were fearful and old women who remembered. They came from Christians, from Jews, from Muslims and from atheists. All sectors of the community were represented in this hours long plea against SB5.

When not reading out public statements, Sen. Davis recounted legal considerations and arguments. This is where we first encounter challenges from Republican Senators. Remember how I said a filibuster must remain germane? It was argued that Sen. Davis referencing and describing Planned Parenthood's budget was not germane. This was upheld by a vote (the Republican majority is important here) and counted as a strike against her.

Let's think about this for a moment. In a debate about changes to clinics offering abortion which require changes that may be outside of their budget, a previous ruling regarding the budget of said clinics is deemed to be not relevant. We have here an example of political, collective, wilful ignorance so extreme that it is difficult to actually comprehend.
Let me reiterate: the budget of a group of clinics was not deemed relevant to a Bill that has direct influence on the budget of that same group of clinics. A group of politicians deliberately chose to ignore the relevance.

Following that piece of alarming wilful ignorance Sen. Davis continued, fielding questions from opposition and supporting Senators alike. After seven hours of standing and talking, for a filibustering Senator is not given leave to sit down, Davis was offered help to adjust her back brace. Again a Point of Order was raised that this broke the rules. It was not clear whether the contention was because a filibusting Senator should not receive assistance or because asking or instructing for help is 'not germane' but clearly the opposition was out for another 'strike'. again, despite arguments, the absence of any rules pertaining to assistance, an interesting sub-debate about the language used in the rules which all refer to filibustering senators as he and him, the Point of Order was upheld.

Senator Davis continued to talk, answer questions and debate legal implications until the 11th hour at which point a third Point of Order was raised. This is where things get particularly complicated and the integrity of the Texas Senate begins to be called into question. Again the Point of Order concerned how germane Senator Davis's remarks about the states 2011 law regarding sonograms. This POA was raised by the Senate Chair himself.
Again we must ask, how is a state law regarding the provision of abortions not relevant to a bill concerned with he provision of abortion? I am unable to answer that question without descending into a fit of incomprehensible spluttering but the Texan Senators present were apparently able to discuss it at length. Here we must pay our respects to Senator Williams who essentially filibusters a filibuster by going into great lengths about the rules surrounding 'being germane' and the rules regarding three Points of Order. Several overlapping POAs where made during this period and it would seem that not only I but the Senate Chair became confused. It is not clear that all POAs  were noted or resolved, nor is it clear in what order they were resolved. Unsurprisingly the Senate Chair decided to uphold his own POA, the original POA that Senator Davis's topic had not remained germane to the Bill.

The situation was still not clear. The time was now at or around 11:48. A mere 12 minutes [give or take, the precise times are not clear] until the end of the special session. Senator Davis, still standing, had taken us through 11 hours explaining in detail with a myriad of facts and anecdotes, as well as professional and public opinon why SB5 should not pass. a further hour and half has been taken up by Senator Williams and arguments over rules regarding filibustering. Just 12 minutes remain.
It should be noted at this point that the Public gallery is intermittently cheering and respectfully silent. The Senate house itself is filled with many hundreds more supporters of Senator Davis.
Following being repeatedly ignored whilst other Senators (Republican) have their points heard and acted upon, Senator Van De Putte waits for quiet and asks:

'At what point must a female senator raise her hand to be recognised over the male colleagues in the room?

The public gallery understandably erupts into cheers of appreciation over this comment, for it does seem that a number of Democrat Senators, particularly female Senators, are being deliberately ignored in favour of other senators (whom we have already noted as having somewhat ludicrous Points upheld). Van De Puttes, as it happens had been calling for an adjournment as she felt that the current scenario was not conducive to a fair and considered vote.

Amidst cheering from the gallery, ongoing debate from senators and statements from the Chair that 'the vote would not be carried out until order is restored in the gellery', he roll call for SB5 began shortly before midnight.
The Special Session officially ended at midnight without any vote being concluded. The Chair decreed that due to special circumstances the midnight deadline should be ignored because the vote was started before that (regardless of the circumstances surrounding the call to vote) and therefore the vote is valid and true.

What occurred at midnight on July 25th 203?
Sadly it looks as if several rules and laws regarding special sessions, points of order and votes were blithely ignored by the Senate Chair so that they my pass the bill. I am sure appeal will be lodged and legal action taken.  
Not only is this a blow to abortion and women's rights but it directly undermines and questions the legal structure of democracy that the country is built upon. It is an affront to all those who support democracy and who try to get things done through legal channels. Rules and laws have been applied in the most scattered of ways and have been bent to suit the will of the Chair and the rest of his party (Republican majority in the Texas Senate). Additionally, the senators who are supposed to represent the people and vote on these bills on their behalf, have chosen to willingly ignore the opinions of thousands of people who opposed this bill. The opposition was presented in facts and figures; the opposition was presented in anecdotes and emotional pleas; the opposition was bipartisan, multi-faith and colour blind; the opposition stuck to the rules of the senate and fought within the legal framework. The Texan Republican Senators and the Chair in particular flouted this, ignored every opportunity presented to them to vote No and make a vote that represented their people. Certainly there were members of the public who agreed with the Bill but I do not think we can say with any certainty that they are the majority or that they made their opinion as known as those who opposed.
If the Senators were not representing their constituents and if the Senators were not respecting the laws and regulations of their own government , how can anybody say that a democratic procedure has occurred. Furthermore if democratic process can so flagrantly and apparently easily be ignored, how can any mandate to govern be respected and upheld?

I am fully aware that the behaviour of the Republican Senators in the Texas Senate last night are not representative of all Republicans, and that is in fact a big part of the problem. The Senators in the room last nigth who pushed through a vote, who ignored other Senators and ran roughshod over rules and procedure not only ignored their consituants but they ignored the very system of governance they strive to be a part of. They acted out of self interest and treated a serious and issue as nothing mroe than an abstract tool designed to gain them power and recognition from thir peers. 

It is shameful and deeply worrying and I can only hope that last nights farce of a democratic procedure can be exposed for the undemocratic deabcle it was and that SB5 will be shelved as is right and proper. 

12:26: update As I was writing this post it has come to light that Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst who had previously declared the vote as passed, has now stated that the session had expired before the vote could be completed and the Bill signed. It is a victory but now we must prepare for a second special session or future interations of the bill.   

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