Senate Passes Harsh Anti-Abortion Bill Minus 20-Week Ban

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After more than six hours of fervent debate, the Texas Senate late last night passed an omnibus anti-abortion bill on a 20-10 vote.

Senate Bill 5 requires all abortion clinics to refit their facilities in line with ambulatory surgical center standards, a move that health advocates say will be so costly that all but five clinics in the state will close. The bill also prevents clinicians from prescribing the abortion pill remotely, as they do currently, for rural women in early stages of pregnancy. And it requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic, effectively excluding out-of-state abortion doctors.

But Republican Sen. Glenn Hegar, a rice farmer from Katy and the sponsor of the bill, dropped one major provision, the clause banning abortion after 20 weeks. He did express hope that it might make a comeback in the House.

Democratic senators spent hours pushing back. They grilled Hegar about the empirical evidence to suggest that ambulatory care centers are safer than stand-alone clinics; about the intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship; about the requirement to have physicians prescribe three times the clinically accepted pharmaceutical dose for medical abortions; about the absence of measures like contraception and sex education to prevent abortions; about the increased cost of abortion care; about the number of clinics that would close; and about women’s reduced access to their constitutionally protected right.

To each criticism, Hegar’s only response was that his bill improved patient safety. In fact, he said it so many times that Sen. Sylvia Garcia quipped, “If I had a dollar for every time you said ‘raising the standard of care,’ you’d probably be able to buy me a good steak dinner.”

Democrats gamely proposed 19 amendments that would link bill adoption to moonshot goals like having Planned Parenthood back in the Women’s Health Program or Texas accept Medicaid expansion. But Hegar, with a face that was consistently expressionless for most of six hours, swiftly and calmly quashed each Democratic proposal.

Just after an 11 p.m. invocation from Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) to technically bring about a new legislative day (blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted because of righteousness, etcetera), Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) made a last-ditch effort to stop the bill on third and final reading. He mourned the fact that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had suspended the two-third rule—which requires a two-thirds vote to bring bills up for debate—in the 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry, allowing senators to “ram through any partisan meat that fail[ed] in the regular session.” After outlining the damage to women’s health following recent legislative decisions like cuts to the state’s family-planning budget and the eviction of Planned Parenthood from state-funded care, Watson asked: “Are we really reducing abortions, or just the legal ones?”

But Hegar never looked ruffled, perhaps because he’d also received spades of encouragement from fellow Republicans as well from avowedly “pro-life” Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Hegar’s work done, the bill is expected to proceed to a House committee on Thursday, where activists for abortion rights as well as anti-abortion activists will gather again for public testimony.

Meanwhile in other news this week, the nonpartisan Texas Women’s Healthcare Coalition honored a group of senators and state representatives for negotiating the return of $200 million for women’s health in the state budget. Among the awardees were Sen. Jane Nelson and Sen. Bob Deuell. Both voted for the omnibus anti-abortion bill last night.

And the name of the award they received this week? Women’s Health Heroes.