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Fighting For Freedom and Choice in Texas

In Texas, turning progressive ideals into action can be an uphill battle, especially with a legislature that just last weekend voted to impose severe restrictions on women’s healthcare. Laws on the books here in our state include a 24-hour waiting period before terminating a pregnancy, requiring a sonogram or a trans-vaginal ultrasound to be performed. Last month, people across the country came together in solidarity with Texas as our State Senator Wendy Davis held a 13-hour filibuster to temporarily block SB 5, a new law that makes no exceptions for abortion in the case of rape or incest after 20 weeks, and lacks an adequate exception to protect a woman’s health, including upon detection of fetal abnormalities later on in pregnancy. Despite that effort, and amid public protests, the bill was renamed HB 2 and passed on Saturday, July 13, during a special session; Governor Rick Perry signed it into law the following Thursday. With the rest of country bearing witness to what some are calling the biggest victory for opponents of abortion in the past decade, activists in Texas are not giving up the fight and plan to challenge the bill’s constitutionality.

As co-chair of the NCJW Texas State Advocacy Policy Network, I work with other women across the state on issues that impact women, children and families. When it came to what was originally called SB 5, NCJW offered testimony to legislators during a hearing on June 21 and again on July 8, speaking out for women who have no voice — as it is our Jewish responsibility to speak out for them.

On Tuesday, June 25, the night of Senator Davis’ filibuster, members of the Jewish community and the Austin section of the National Council of Jewish Women bore witness to Senators Davis’ poise and endurance as she spoke out for us all. Her own personal story — a single parent struggling to make ends meet, the story of so many across Texas — explained how lives will be endangered under SB 5. Rural and poor women in Texas will have virtually no access to safe and legal abortions since excessive regulations for abortion clinics in SB 5 will in fact close all but five of them. Poor women — women without resources to make several trips to a distant clinic — may be forced to seek unsafe abortion options, with many of them perhaps losing their lives as a result.

That Tuesday night, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions, and I shared them with my companions in the senate gallery. We were a quiet presence in the state house for almost 12 hours as Republican Senators focused on every move and every word that Senator Davis made. Eventually, closing in on midnight, a third unmerited warning to Senator Davis was sustained by the President of the chamber. Fear and frustration were building inside of me, until Senator Van de Putte made her now-famous remark 20 minutes before the stroke of midnight: “What does a woman Senator need to do for her voice or hand to be recognized over her male colleagues?”

Suddenly the gallery exploded into chants. “Let her Speak!” “Shame on You!” “Wen-dy!” Our voices were amplified by thousands of protestors who filled the Capitol building. Together we created a deafening roar over which it was impossible to hear a roll call on the floor. And through our efforts, the bill failed to pass before the deadline. I will remember this defining, exhilarating moment forever. At midnight, the Democratic Senators looked up into the gallery with victory signs and I knew I had just witnessed something amazing.

The majority of our conservative Texas legislators want to codify their ideological anti-abortion views, and I am not sure what is driving them. Maybe it’s a desire to win elections or to legalize deeply held religious beliefs, or a combination of both. Either way there is a growing movement taking root in Texas and it just might prove successful in preventing the Texas Legislature from imposing their future ideological agendas on the women of Texas.

NCJW, through its Voices for Reproductive Choices initiative, carries forward its historic legacy of mobilizing advocates to speak out for every woman’s reproductive rights and access to reproductive healthcare. I am so proud to join the more than 3000 NCJW supporters and advocates in Texas.

Susan Pintchovski is co-chair of the NCJW Texas State Advocacy Policy Network.

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