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House Democrats Delay Sonogram Bill (and the Inevitable)

A technicality sent the controversial bill back to committee—and the committee sent it right back to the floor
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Observer intern Alexa Garcia-Ditta and I co-wrote this post.

A vaginal probe gets attention. That might have been the memorable lesson at today’s House debate on the sonogram bill. Of course, the other lesson—make sure you have all the technicalities straight—might be more important. 

After hours of delays for points of order, the controversial bill got sent back to the State Affairs Committee Wednesday. Lawmakers plan on debating the bill again Thursday on the House floor.

But before the technical battles began, spectators got a taste of the debate. The bill is a more stringent version of its Senate counterpart. It requires doctors to perform a sonogram at least 24 hours before they perform an abortion. Additionally, doctors must show the sonogram image to the patient and offer a verbal description of the image. That description won’t be generic—it will give the dimensions of the fetus and describe whether arms or legs have developed. There’s no penalty if the woman opts out of listening to the descriptions or hearing the heartbeat, but doctors in violation of the bill would risk losing their medical license. Unlike the Senate version, this bill does not make an exception for those women who are pregnant through rape or incest (although it does allow those with a medical emergency to forgo the process.)

Proponents have said the bill will “empower” women and ensure a standard of care. Critics say that’s hogwash.

Enter the probe. Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, began trying to kill the bill with her speech against the legislation holding the (rather intimidating) instrument that she said doctors would have to use in order to perform the sonogram procedure. This ain’t your usual smear-jelly-on-the-tummy ultrasound. Abortions can only occur in early stages of pregnancy and so, to see the fetus, Alvarado said doctors would have to do a transvaginal ultrasound. That requires sticking an instrument into the woman’s vagina in order to see an image. It’s a more invasive procedure than sonograms that occur later in a pregnancy.

“This is government intrusion at its best,” Alvarado said as she offered an amendment that would effectively kill the bill. “We’ve reached a climax of government intrusion. The health provider will move the probe within the area to view the pelvic organs.”

Alvarado’s argument—which offered a graphic description about the particulars of the procedure—hardly moved Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring. She said the exam was hardly different than a pap smear, a procedure many want the state to help fund for low-income women. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, also wasn’t moved. “Any time you abort a human life that’s the most tragic procedure you can perform,” he said. “Is a sonogram more invasive than abortion?”

“This is a way to shame and guilt women,” Alvarado later countered.

The debate soon ended as Democrats began coming forward with points of order. All dealt with the complexities of just when and how the State Affairs committee posted announcements on hearing the bill. After much delay, Miller moved that bill get sent back to committee—a sign the point of order was likely valid. “If everything goes as planned, we’ll be back here tomorrow and start all over,” he told his colleagues.

The point of order was undoubtedly a big win for House Democrats, but it’s largely delaying the inevitable. Their substantive points—that the bill promotes governmental overreach and invades a private procedure—will hardly garner attention from conservative colleagues.

Within the blink of an eye, State Affairs voted for the bill, sending it back to the floor. This is the most conservative Texas House in recent memory, and this bill has already been flagged as a top priority. After pre-session speculation that he wasn’t adequately pro-life, Speaker Joe Straus has already voiced his support for the bill. Gov. Rick Perry named it an “emergency item” and got it fast-tracked. The pro-choice legislators don’t have the numbers to kill the bill. They can only make the process longer and more frustrating.

Before the debate began, we ran into Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life and a vocal proponent of the bill. “We’re going to have a good day today!” he exclaimed to Rep. Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands.

He might have been wrong on the timing, but in all likelihood, tomorrow will still be a good day for abortion foes. That is unless Democrats can find a new technicality to delay the bill.