As the Texas House voted on the first anti-abortion bill to make it to the floor this session, advocates rolled down a banner above the board displaying lawmakers’ votes: “STOP TURNING LIES INTO LAWS.”
The House gave initial passage to the bill, titled the “Texas Born-Alive Infant Protection Act,” after a brief but tense floor debate Tuesday evening, and gave it a final stamp of approval on Wednesday. The measure, House Bill 16, is Texas’ version of a national proposal that failed in the U.S. Senate earlier this year. HB 16 would penalize doctors who don’t give full medical treatment to babies born alive after abortion. Practically speaking, the bill does very little: There have been zero cases reported by the state since it started tracking them in 2013. Even if it did occur, federal law already requires infants born alive at any stage in development be given equal protection. But abortion-rights advocates say the measure is dangerous political propaganda that aims to paint abortions later in pregnancy as extreme and target the doctors who provide them.
“The aim of HB 16 is clear: further stigmatize abortion, misinform the public, intimidate physicians and interfere with women’s ability to seek medical care,” said state Representative Donna Howard, D-Austin, the sole lawmaker to speak against the bill on Tuesday. Howard, a former critical care nurse, called it “blatantly false, inflammatory and dangerous.”
“I am insulted by the implication that I or any other nurse or doctor… would not do any and everything in our power to provide care to any medically stressed human being,” she said. “The misinformation perpetuated by this bill is dangerous and is the exact type of rhetoric that leads to threats of violence against providers.”
The Texas bill is part of a broader national strategy by Republicans to falsely paint Democrats and abortion providers as extremists who support infanticide. Texas Republicans have cited legislation in other states, including a recent New York law that allows abortion after 24 weeks when the pregnant patient’s life is at risk or the fetus isn’t viable. “The collective conscience of our nation has been shocked in recent weeks by the extreme callous disregard for human life,” said HB 16 author Jeff Leach, R-Plano, on Tuesday. “We have babies now and in the future who need the Legislature to speak on their behalf, to give voice to the voiceless.”
State political leaders have signaled their support for the bill, and a similar measure from Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, already passed the upper chamber. Governor Greg Abbott backed the bills, citing them as a “stand” against the “growing support for infanticide.” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick added: “We have watched in horror as lawmakers in other states have put forth monstrous proposals that attack life and expand abortion, even for children that have been born.” (Abortions cannot occur after birth.)
Despite not being medically accurate, much of the rhetoric around HB 16 is part of a larger strategy among anti-abortion activists to specifically target abortions later in pregnancy. Another proposed bill in Texas would prohibit doctors from performing abortions in the third trimester even when the fetus “has a severe, irreversible brain impairment,” or the pregnant patient “is diagnosed with a significant likelihood of suffering imminent severe, irreversible brain damage or imminent severe, irreversible paralysis.” It’s a top priority for the far-right anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life. The House version, by state Representative Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, will be considered in the State Affairs Committee Wednesday; its Senate companion was heard in committee last week.
Meanwhile, just about 1 percent of abortions in the United States occur after 21 weeks — often much-wanted pregnancies that are terminated because the patient’s life is in danger or because of a life-threatening fetal abnormality.
Opponents of these bills say references to “infanticide” and other misleading language around abortions later in pregnancy could incite violence against abortion providers, or otherwise intimidate them from performing the procedure. There are already a very limited number of doctors specializing in abortions later in pregnancy, so preventing even one from doing so could have an outsize impact on abortion access, advocates say.
Anti-abortion groups Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life have specifically said that doctors should be the ones punished for abortions. “Pregnant women are victims of abortion in addition to the preborn child who is deprived of his or her Right to Life. … Thus, Texas Right to Life always ensures Pro-Life priority legislation is carefully written so that all liability, penalties, and enforcement are upon the abortionist and the abortion industry, not pregnant or post-abortive women,” the group wrote.
On Tuesday, Howard led opponents of HB 16 in voting “present, not voting” in “protest of this harmful charade.” The bill passed, 93-1-50; Republicans were joined by 12 Democrats to support it, while state Representative Harold Dutton, D-Houston cast the sole “no” vote and 50 lawmakers registered “present, not voting.”
“We refuse to waste the limited time we have here to take care of the people’s business by entertaining malicious and purely political attacks against women and doctors,” Howard said. “We refuse to ignore the expertise of medical professionals and allow them to be targeted and harassed. We refuse to use the power entrusted in us by our constituents and the voters of Texas for political theater, or to be party to turning lies into law.”