Democrats in the Legislature are being forced to choose between two evils when it comes to renewing the Women’s Health Program—a drastically reduced program or none at all.
Senate Bill 1854 by Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, would renew the program, which provides birth control and other healthcare services to almost 90,000 Texas women. Unless the Legislature passes a renewal bill, the program will expire at the end of the year. But Deuell’s bill also prohibits Planned Parenthood, one of the largest providers in the program, from participating. And the bill contains a provision that says if the ban on Planned Parenthood is ruled unconstitutional at any point, the entire program will cease to operate. Without this bill, though, the program will end in December.
Deuell’s legislation and its House companion are the only Women’s Health Program renewal bills to make it out of committee this session. So while Democrats oppose the poison-pill language that eliminates a major provider and puts the whole program at risk, they may have to support it if they want to program to be extended.
Faced with this no-win situation, Democrats in each chamber are taking different approaches. Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston who has been working on women’s health legislation throughout his legislative career, has opted to carry Deuell’s bill in the House. He says his ultimate goal is to protect the program, no matter what. “I represent poor women,” he says. “If there’s no bill there’s no bill, if there’s no bill there’s no program.”
Coleman’s House Bill 2299 was voted unanimously out of the House Human Services committee a few weeks ago and is now waiting to be put on the Local and Consent calendar. The House has until the middle of next week to consider any local and consent bills.
Senate Democrats are taking the opposite approach. All 12 Democrats have successfully blocked Deuell’s bill from being brought up on the Senate floor for debate. Without at least two Democrats’ votes to bring up the bill, Deuell doesn’t have a two-thirds support needed to debate his legislation.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said more could be done. Republicans “have tried to convince us by saying that, ‘well is this is all we’ve got, if we don’t pass it then the program is going to end,’ and my view is well it doesn’t have to,” he says. “We could change the language in the bill.”
Rodriguez said Deuell refused to accept his amendment that would have eliminated the provision in the bill that would end the program if the anti-Planned Parenthood language is ruled unconstitutional. Rodriguez said he and his Democratic colleagues want to fight for a better bill. “It’s a ideological view being imposed on us by those that are anti-abortion and who don’t believe it women’s right to choose,” he said. “This shows you how far they’re willing to go.”
Still, if the Deuell’s bill dies in the Senate, the only chance the program has left is Coleman’s House companion. If Coleman’s bill is sent to the Senate, Democrats in the upper chamber may have to support it to ensure the program doesn’t just abruptly end in December. At this point, as the session is quickly winding down and bills are dying left and right, the future of the Women’s Health Program looks bleak.