The good news on reproductive rights is that nothing bad happened
In the two previous sessions, abortion rights and family planning advocates resisted to no avail as pro-life lawmakers restricted access to abortions and siphoned off money from women’s health programs. There was little reason to believe this session would be much kinder.
But by session’s end, none of more than two dozen abortion or birth control-related bills had passed, and money for family planning programs remained untouched. The way pro-choice forces see it, they won by not losing.
“Defeating 100 percent of the anti-choice efforts at the Texas Legislature is no small feat,” says Heather Paffe, political director of the Texas Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.
Fighting to a draw didn’t sit as well with pro-lifers. “The Legislature is set up by the Texas Constitution to not pass bills,” says Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life. “It’s like a huge funnel with a big reason for all this optimism. The opening is very big, but the spigot is very tiny. … Anything that’s the least bit controversial is very difficult to pass.”
It helped that Democrats had picked up a few seats in the House, and that the end-of-session bullfight over Speaker Tom Craddick’s tenure accidentally gored two high-profile abortion bills.
This session’s flashiest pro-life legislation was more style than substance-it would have made abortions illegal immediately in Texas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Pampa Republican Warren Chisum pushed the idea in the House, Houston Republican Dan Patrick in the Senate. Both bills died when lawmakers saw what the ban would do to the state budget. The bills carried a whopping $217 million fiscal note over two years, reflecting how much Medicaid money would probably be needed to pay for the increase in births. (Medicaid pays for delivery of about half of Texas infants.)
Two other pro-life measures persevered until the final week before disappearing in the House political imbroglio.
Senate Bill 785 by Plano Republican Sen. Florence Shapiro would have required the state to collect extensive data on abortions, abortion complications, and judicial bypass cases, in which judges let minors obtain abortions without a parent’s consent in certain situations. Patrick’s Senate Bill 920 would have required abortion providers to perform ultrasounds and review the images with patients. The bill’s language was unclear about whether a woman would be required to look at the sonogram.
Pojman says the two bills were modest and “it’s unfortunate that they got killed by the process.”
Shapiro’s call for collecting data on judges who grant bypasses reignited a long-heated debate over the process. Pro-life advocates say they want policymakers to know how many bypasses are being granted. Pro-choice organizations believe the data collection is a ruse to identify and defeat judges who grant them.
In the 79th session, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch testified against similar legislation because “the issue of identifying the judge and tying the judge to the particular outcome I thought posed a significant safety issue without meeting a corresponding, overriding public need. Family law cases in general tend to be very dangerous cases for judges.”
The U.S. Supreme Court requires that judicial bypass cases be confidential and anonymous, Pojman says, and identifying judges wasn’t the intent. The information collected could be used to direct policy, he says, like reporting appellate court decisions to give guidance to lower courts. “It’s a pretty serious thing to suspend parent’s rights,” he says. “We’ve got to have some accountability for those courts.”
The bill’s supporters also say the abortion data-which would have included the father’s age, the reason for the abortion, and who paid for it-would be used to direct public policy. Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat, says the bill’s sponsors never clarified what kind of policy change would result. “That was left wide open,” Farrar says. “They wouldn’t give an affirmative, ‘Yes, I’ll vote for more [Children’s Health Insurance Program] funding.’… As long as the same people who are voting to limit access to abortion continue to make cuts to CHIP, to public education, immunization programs, on and on, all these things that we’re 49th and 50th in the nation in-as long as they continue to do that, I think women will continue to make the decisions that they don’t want them to make.”
Both bills became ensnarled in speaker politics. SB 785 died on a point of order after Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat, accused Craddick of pushing the bill through in exchange for pro-life support of his speakership. SB 920 was pulled from the calendar by its House sponsor, San Antonio Republican Rep. Frank Corte, when he realized opponents were going to drag out the calendar until midnight to prevent it from being considered. Given the adjournment deadline, SB 920 could have been the death of dozens of bills behind it on the calendar.
Corte’s policy adviser, Kathi Seay, says the votes were probably there to pass pro-life legislation, so opponents needed parliamentary maneuvers to kill both measures. “That’s why pro-choice people did everything they could to make sure that nothing came to a vote,” she says.
Funding for women’s health and family planning services other than abortion-often an innocent victim in past fights over the issue-came out of this session unscathed, but no ground lost in previous sessions was regained.
Last session, the biennial budget cut $25 million in federal funds for family planning contractors like Planned Parenthood. The contractors provide basic health care services for low-income women, such as gynecological exams, breast cancer screenings, contraception and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
A 2005 rider by Sen. Tommy Williams, Republican from The Woodlands, redirected $5 million to crisis pregnancy centers, which are anti-abortion in nature and provide pregnancy services to promote childbirth. A nonprofit organization, the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, was set up to receive the money and distribute it to subcontractors. In January, the Austin Chronicle reported that the network served only 11 clients statewide in 2006. The $5 million could have provided health care services to 17,000 low-income women. This session saw two unsuccessful efforts to give the $5 million back to family planning providers or child abuse prevention grants.
Another 2005 budget rider by Greenville Republican Sen. Robert Deuell earmarked $20 million in federal family planning money for federally qualified health centers. Paffe of Planned Parenthood says that by the end of the first fiscal year, $2 million had not been spent. The Department of State Health Services then had to reallocate some of the unused money to other family planning contractors, which had already laid off staff and depleted their infrastructure, Paffe says.
Parts of the state that had few or no health centers simply lost family planning dollars to other areas. Such was the case in Chisum’s Panhandle district. Though this year’s budget still allocates $20 million to the health centers, Chisum, chairman of the House budget-writing committee, added a rider stipulating that the money awarded to the centers cannot adversely affect the number of clients served, “especially in counties where no [qualified health center] is available.” Coming from the staunch social conservative, the rider is encouraging, says Sarah Wheat, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region. “It’s a recognition that what they passed last session didn’t work,” Wheat says. “It’s a sign that at least some in the Legislature recognize that reducing women’s access to family planning isn’t sound policy.”
Megan Headley is an Observer legislative intern.