With her voice cracking, state Representative Ana-Maria Ramos described her experience of being a struggling teen mom on the Texas House floor on Friday. A mother at 15, she told her colleagues, she didn’t know whether she would eat the next day. The Richardson Democrat, a past Planned Parenthood patient, explained the importance of access to contraception and other health services through the organization. Ramos implored Republicans to at least modify legislation that would block local governments from partnering with abortion providers and their affiliates, even for services unrelated to abortion. People “will die,” she said, proposing an amendment to exempt counties with uninsured rates higher than 10 percent from the anti-Planned Parenthood measure, Senate Bill 22.
A fellow Democratic Representative, Gina Calanni, of Katy, stood to support her amendment. Did Ramos know that Calanni had been uninsured, she asked. That she had put off getting a pap smear because she couldn’t pay for the doctor visit? That when she finally went for the test, she found out she had cervical cancer?
The sponsor of the bill, state Representative Candy Noble, R-Allen, immediately opposed the amendment without any comment. The amendment failed.
This pattern continued for more than six hours on the House floor Friday in one of the most emotional debates of the 86th Legislature. Lawmakers sparred over SB 22 late into the evening. Democrats proposed amendment after amendment in an effort to mitigate what they said would be the sweeping and devastating effects on reproductive health care across Texas. Each time, Noble opposed the amendment without debate. She refused to take questions, bucking the norm in the Capitol. Each amendment failed, mostly on party lines similar to the bill’s final vote count of 81-65.
SB 22, which has already passed the upper chamber and could soon land on Governor Greg Abbott’s desk for final approval, is the latest attempt by conservative state lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood. But doctors, local officials and reproductive health advocates, who flooded the House gallery on Friday in protest, say the bill is a dangerous attack on access to care in a state that has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, poor maternal health outcomes and one of the highest teen pregnancy rates. One service that wouldn’t be impacted by SB 22, though, is abortion — taxpayer dollars have long been blocked from funding the procedure.
Instead, the casualties would be: cancer screenings, teen pregnancy prevention programs, HIV testing and treatment, sex education, contraception, Zika prevention kits, STD treatment and more.
“This is about politics, it’s not about good policy, and it’s not about improving good public health,” said state Representative Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, listing numerous counties across Texas that would lose services thanks to SB 22. “Who will fill the gap if we pass this law and lose access?” Davis, flanked by fellow lawmakers clad in scarves, ties and shirts with Planned Parenthood’s signature hot pink, proposed an early amendment to effectively kill the bill, which failed mostly along party lines. Davis, the only Republican in the House who supports abortion rights, was the only GOP member to vote against the controversial legislation.
SB 22 is the latest in a years-long vendetta against Planned Parenthood. In 2011, lawmakers slashed the state’s family planning budget by two-thirds, leading more than 80 clinics across Texas to close. Two years later, the Legislature kicked planned Parenthood out of the Medicaid women’s health program, leaving millions in federal funds on the table in order to create its own state-funded program without the reproductive health care giant. Tens of thousands of low-income Texans lost access to health services. In 2015, Texas tried to kick Planned Parenthood out of the full Medicaid program, a move that is still tied up in court, with the latest hearing held at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this month.
Now anti-abortion lawmakers want to go further, blocking local government entities from partnering with organizations connected to abortion providers, even on matters that have nothing to do with abortion. “Taxpayers who oppose abortion should not have to see tax dollars subsidizing abortion providers,” said Noble, the bill’s House sponsor. “We want to invest in life, not in the destruction of lives.”
Republican legislators, several of whom barely squeezed past Democratic opponents in the midterm election, remained mostly quiet during the debate. Far-right Representative Tony Tinderholt, of Arlington, proposed one of just three amendments by conservative lawmakers. His proposal would have expanded the ban on local government partnerships to include any place an abortion is performed, including hospitals — a recommendation from anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life that aims to block hospitals from providing abortion. The amendment was withdrawn.
Noble, refusing to defend her bill, said that she would oppose all amendments because she didn’t have time to read and consider implications of the 46 filed. Proposals to exempt the ban in cases of natural disasters, to exclude sex education, to exclude health services for community college students and to allow local taxpayers to vote on whether to implement SB 22 in their community all failed. One to exclude services for survivors of sexual assault prompted a three-hour recess while members negotiated, but it was ultimately withdrawn.
Toward the end of the debate, an amendment from Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, became the only one to pass. Without it even being read aloud, Noble okayed the amendment, which read, “This chapter may not be construed to restrict a municipality or county from prohibiting abortion.”
Supporters of SB 22 argue that Planned Parenthood isn’t needed to meet the need for reproductive health services in Texas, touting the state’s replacement program, Healthy Texas Women. But data shows established providers have largely been replaced by physicians and small clinics that haven’t been able to fill in the gap. Davis and Democratic lawmakers cited the fact that almost half the providers didn’t see a single patient in the program in 2017. They also pointed out that the Heidi Group, the anti-abortion group awarded multi-million dollar contracts to help rebuild the network of family planning providers, served just 5 percent of the patients promised, which was first reported by the Observer.
Instead, opponents argued that the bill is a political stunt at the expense of women’s health. SB 22 “disguises itself as an anti-abortion bill, [but actually] it’s about cutting off access for people who are uninsured and underinsured,” said state Representative Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, in a closing speech late Friday night. “It will actually have the impact of driving up the abortion rate by cutting off birth control services.” She added: “you really don’t need this vote for your primary [election].”