Late Tuesday, a Senate committee voted out a contentious bill that critics have blasted as an attack on abortion rights. The vote was 5-2, with two Democrats—Sen. Royce West of Dallas and Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio—voting ‘no’.
Senate Bill 537 would force clinics that provide abortion services (medical or surgical) to meet ambulatory surgical standards—basically becoming a licensed Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC). Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) presented the so-called back-door abortion ban bill to the Health and Human Services Committee as an effort to protect women’s health.
“I make no secret that I don’t think abortion should be legal, but I also face the reality that they are,” said Deuell, who is a family physician. “And given that fact, I think that we should take all precautions to make sure that abortion, which is a surgical procedure, is done to the highest standard possible.”
Based on the 117-page document that governs ASC regulations, all clinics that provide abortion services—even those that only perform chemical (or medical) abortions—would have to house surgical operating rooms at least 240 square feet in size and sterile operating room ventilation systems. Many who testified against the bill are calling these requirements excessive, medically unnecessary and difficult for health centers to meet.
Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas spoke against the bill. “We know it would reduce access. The numbers are clear. Five clinics in nine years,” she said, referring to the number of abortion clinics that have been granted ambulatory surgical center licenses over the past near decade. “It’s ridiculous to argue that ‘Oh, abortion clinics can just simply comply with the regulations’ when we know those regulations are costly.”
She said there are currently only five abortion clinics that meet ambulatory surgical standards—the rest would face expensive upgrades or closure. “On average, it would cost $300 per square foot,” said Busby. “For a very small clinic it would cost $1.5 million. In order to run the clinic, it would cost at least $400,000 $40,000 or more per month.”
But Deuell aggressively defended his bill. “I can respectfully say that anyone who is opposing this bill is basically stating that they do not think that women who make the decision to have an abortion should have the very very best in medical care.”
For her part, Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) was flustered and confusing—she brought up anal bleeding. “After a colonoscopy on a man, he comes in bleeding in the emergency room from the rectum and we’ve got a surgeon on call. But we don’t have somebody on call for a lady who is hemorrhaging. In the uterus. From a procedure that was done at a facility that was held at less standards. So I applaud this bill.”
Retired pastor and pro-choice advocate John Yeaman said, “A number of clinics will be closed because of this bill. How necessary are these extra additional regulations? …The risk of this will increase the likelihood of women getting illegal and life threatening abortions.”
Deuell responded quickly and aggressively. “Did you hear of clinics that are getting certification of a surgical center? …Some are already doing it, so obviously it could be done. Do you take the position that women will not be safer under my bill? …You’re saying abortion clinics would close in the state. What are you basing that on?”
After Yeaman floundered and failed to name a reputable source, Deuell pushed harder. “Where did you get that information? What did you read?”
Sen. Campbell chimed in angrily. “Let me just comment: you are a man. And I would like to see you here arguing the point that we need to lower the standards on colonoscopies for men or penile implants, things like that. For men.”