Restrictive Abortion Bill Targeting Teens One Step Closer to Law After Senate Approval

Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.
Kelsey Jukam
Reproductive rights activists gathered at the Capitol over the weekend to oppose a restrictive abortion bill that limits abortion access for vulnerable teens.

After hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments by Democrats, the Texas Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a major anti-abortion bill that makes it harder for abused or neglected teenagers to get an abortion through the courts.

Current law requires that Texans under 18 get a parent’s permission to have an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy or abortion, or if they don’t have a parent to consent.

House Bill 3994, approved with a 21-to-10 vote in the Senate, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence,” essentially making it tougher to secure a bypass. The legislation also restricts where a minor can file a bypass application. Currently, a teen can file her request in any Texas county; HB 3994 restricts it to her home county, a neighboring county if she lives in one with fewer than 10,000 residents, or the county in which the abortion provider is located. Opponents say such a change may jeopardize confidentiality, especially in rural counties where minors might be easily recognized at the courthouse. The bill also increases the number of days the judge has to make a ruling from two to five.

While state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), the bill’s Senate sponsor, insisted the changes would provide more “judicial clarity” and better “protections” for abused minors, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and his fellow Democrats raised concerns that the bill may violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the bypass process must be confidential and expeditious.

“Each day matters in the ability of a person to exercise their constitutional right to obtain an abortion,” Watson said while questioning Perry on the bill. “Time is important because of grave and indelible consequences that can play out if we deny a constitutional right. … The bottom line is, if we’re not careful and we’re not expeditious, as the Supreme Court said, that child becomes a parent.”

Under current law, if a judge doesn’t rule on a minor’s application, her request for a bypass is deemed granted. Perry’s legislation would reverse that: If a judge doesn’t issue a ruling, permission would be automatically denied.

“In essence, the judge can bypass the judicial bypass by simply not ruling,” Watson said during the debate.

Typical of abortion debates this session, attempts by Democrats to curb some of the far-reaching restrictions failed, including an amendment by Watson that would have created an exception for rape, assault or incest victims.

Often, young women turn to the bypass process when they have been raped or sexually abused by a relative. According to 2013 Department of Public Safety data, about 11 percent of sexual assault victims in Texas were abused by a family member. Nearly 10,000 of sexual assault victims in Texas in 2013 were between the ages of 10 and 19.

“I think we want to avoid victimizing the victim, but our policies can do that,” Watson said during debate.

Tina Hester, executive director of Jane’s Due Process, said the bill makes judicial bypass “unattainable” for many vulnerable teens.

“The judicial bypass is in place to protect abused and neglected pregnant teens who cannot safely turn to a parent or cannot find a parent. When a minor is forced to go to her local courthouse in rural communities her confidentiality is near impossible to protect,” she said in a statement. Hester also said the organization will consider pursuing a lawsuit should the bill ultimately become law.

HB 3994 also includes an identification requirement for all abortion-seeking women, albeit one softened from earlier versions. The bill’s original language mandated that all Texans seeking an abortion present a government-issued form of identification, and instructed physicians to “presume” all women are minors until they prove otherwise.

After the constitutionality of that provision was called into question late last week, Perry tweaked the requirement. Now, if a woman doesn’t have one of these acceptable forms of ID, her physician must give her information on how to obtain one. If she still can’t get an ID, a physician can still perform the abortion, but must then report to the Department of State Health Services that an abortion was performed without age verification. While the language has changed, the effect remains the same, said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

“The new version is still vague as to what a provider must do and could open them up to additional liability,” she said in a statement.

HB 3994 will likely get an easy final vote in the Senate on Tuesday. The House passed a version of HB 3994 two weeks ago, but after Monday’s changes in the Senate, the House must approve the updated version, or appoint a conference committee to discuss the differences by Friday.

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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Published at 10:14 pm CST