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Texas House passes abortion law: why it matters beyond Lone Star State

Legislation passed Wednesday that would ban abortion after 20 weeks and impose other restrictions. Texas has played an outsized part in keeping the issue on the national agenda.

There’s nothing small or shy about Texas. And so it was Wednesday, when the state House of Representatives passed a bill containing major new restrictions on abortion.

Crowds cheered and jeered for both sides, the supporters clad in blue, opponents in orange. After hours of debate over amendments, the tally came in as expected, largely along party lines, 96 to 49. The bill now heads for a state Senate committee on Thursday, and a vote in the full Senate either later this week or early next week.

State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) of Forth Worth, who shot to fame last month when she staged a successful 11-hour filibuster against similar legislation, predicted the new bill will pass.

“It will be very difficult because unfortunately the voices that have been here crying out against this bill are not going to be heard,” Senator Davis told CNN.

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“But I don’t think it’s the end,” she added. “It’s the beginning of a battle line.”

The legislation would ban abortion after 20 weeks’ pregnancy, require abortion clinics to upgrade to become hospital-like surgical centers, and require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Supporters say the measures are designed to protect women’s health; opponents say they threaten many of Texas’s abortion clinics with closure.

Once the legislation is signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry (R), Texas will have joined a growing list of states in recent months and years that have added new restrictions to abortion – many of them now under challenge in court.

But like no other state, Texas has put the abortion issue back on the national agenda. Part of it is Davis and her filibuster, aided by a now-famous pair of pink sneakers. Part of it, also, is the outsize personality of Governor Perry, who on Monday announced he will not seek reelection in 2014 and thus boosted speculation that he will run again for president.

“From the point of view of the Republican primary, [abortion] is a good issue for a guy like Perry,” says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.

Another dimension of the drama comes from Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who has been in her native Texas lending her voice to the debate. Ms. Richards’s mother was Ann Richards, the last Democratic governor of Texas and a larger than life figure herself. Cecile Richards is conducting a bus tour around the state called “Stand with Texas Women.”