For an updated version of this story, read "Texas Senate Votes To Decimate Abortion Access"
Just when we thought we evaded a round of draconian abortion bills proposed during the surprisingly quiet 83rd Texas Legislative regular session, Gov. Rick Perry has not-so-surprisingly clumped the most onerous restrictions together and slapped them on the special session agenda, in what reproductive rights advocates call an “anti-choice wishlist.”
While under the impression he was reigning legislators back in for worthy causes like redistricting and transportation funding, earlier this month, Perry – pressured by anti-abortion activists who saw minimal strides this go around – shut down hopes that legislating the female reproductive system was so 2011.
Relatively calm waters marked the regular session, with lawmakers actually undoing some of the massive damage done to reproductive health services in the state, like restoring $100 million for women’s health through primary care funding. To the chagrin of the anti-choice lobby, none of the more than 20 abortion-restrictive related bills filed gained enough political muster for a floor debate, even amid one of the most socially conservative Legislatures in recent history.
But the stalled legislation has come back with a vengeance, now dangerously equipped with the potential to be fast-tracked due to a procedural technicality. While a two-thirds Senate majority is needed to pass legislation during regular session, Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is dissolving this rule for special session, effectively stripping pro-choice lawmakers of their blocking power. Sailing through last Friday afternoon’s Senate committee hearing, the bills now move to the floor. With 19 Republicans against 12 Democrats in the chamber, the odds aren’t pretty.
One of those Democrats, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), says she’s been pleased with the bipartisan efforts made this session – but her praise is short-lived.
“Sadly, Governor Perry apparently wants something different for the Special Session. He added abortion issues to the […] call, renewing the attack on women,” Van de Putte said in a statement. “If the Governor is going to keep legislators in Austin, let’s make that time productive and work on issues that will take all Texans into the future, rather than pushing women’s reproductive rights back to the past.”
The 19-page omnibus Senate Bill 5, authored by Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), rolls four of the most restrictive pieces of legislation into one and guarantees abortion access will recall a pre-Roe v. Wade era more than ever before.
For instance, it includes a measure that would require abortion-providing doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital no further than 30 miles where the procedure is performed, a narrow and complicated demand pro-choice advocates describe as a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP law. Another, written by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), would compel doctors to follow FDA guidelines (considered outdated by major health organizations) when administering abortion-inducing drugs and require women to pay higher costs while experiencing more side effects. (You can thank the infamous sonogram law author for keeping the hits coming.)
Then there’s Perry’s own baby, the so-called “Fetal Pain Bill,” which would effectively outlaw abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization on the basis the fetus can feel pain at this point — an assertion the Journal of American Medical Association doesn’t support. Pressed to produce evidence that demonstrates the science behind the legislation isn’t completely dubious during a contentious three-hour Senate committee hearing last week, Hegar couldn’t point to a single study to bolster his argument. Imagine that.
Perhaps the most destructive and troubling section of the behemoth bill to the pro-choice community is the requirement that all abortion clinics be held to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). As the Current wrote in March, expensive (and unnecessary) structural costs like expanded hallways and updated A/C systems, would force all but five out of the state’s 42 abortion clinics to close their doors – leaving one center for every 54,000 miles of Texas.
Here in San Antonio, only one clinic would remain open, local Lilith Fund board member Lindsay Rodriguez told the Current. Needless to say, the results would be devastating.
Considering costs (like transportation and time off work) associated with finding a new provider, Rodriguez is concerned about additional barriers to access for vulnerable city residents, “We have many on a lower-income level here and a high percentage of families who already don’t have access to medical care and insurance,” she said. “The bill would disproportionately hurt rural, immigrant, working-class, and minority women.”
The omnibus bill amounts to a massive giveaway for the anti-choice lobby, as evidenced by the uncontained excitement of Joe Pojman with Texas Alliance for Life. Pojman told the Current the suspension of the two-thirds rule creates a “whole different ballgame,” and that he, along with fellow activists, are “thrilled” at the opportunity to “increase protections for women.”
And that is precisely how anti-abortion activists and legislators justify their intentions — by claiming the measures are intended to protect women and ensure quality of care. Yet, as New Braunfels-based state Sen. Donna Campbell failed to realize during this month’s committee hearing, the Department of State Health Services heavily regulates abortion facilities in Texas and clinics have reporting requirement in place today. Overall, abortion is one of the safest – some 10 times less risky than childbirth– and most common medical procedures according to the Guttmacher Institute and the National Abortion Federation.
If enacted, the bills create an environment where women will be less safe and have fewer options, Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told the Current. And that can mean carrying unwanted pregnancy to term or undergoing dangerous, unregulated, back-alley abortions.
“These bills didn’t pass during regular session for a reason,” she says. “Conservative-to-moderate lawmakers didn’t want to take it up, and that speaks volumes. And now they are ramming it through during special session, where it can move along much more quickly with fewer procedural controls.
Those controls exist for a reason — to prevent extreme liberal or conservative views from dominating.”
A small faction of influential right-wingers may make it seem like all Texans spend their free time picketing abortion clinics, but it’s worth noting attitudes about the procedure are more accepting — a 2013 poll conducted by University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 52 percent of respondants agree abortion should be legal.
What this last-ditch effort to revive failed abortion-restrictive bills really signifies is that even in Texas, the political mainstream isn’t on board with an idealogically-driven assault on abortion. Instead of playing fair, Perry and co. realize the only shot they have to push their anti-choice agenda further is through cunning procedural maneuvers in the eleventh hour.
Let’s hope the mainstream wins out.
At press time, the Senate was scheduled to take up SB5 on June 18, check for updates at sacurrent.com.
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