Texas House Gives Preliminary OK to Abortion Restrictions for Minors

Alexa Garcia-Ditta

In many ways, it felt like every other debate in recent memory over a major abortion bill: long and painful, laced with an air of inevitability.

After hours of deliberation, and more than a dozen unsuccessful amendments by House Democrats, the Texas House gave preliminary approval late Wednesday night to House Bill 3994, which makes a litany of changes to a legal process set up for minors seeking an abortion. The bill also requires every person seeking an abortion, regardless of age, to show government-issued identification—in effect, it’s voter ID for abortions.

A parental notification law requires that Texans under the age of 18 get their parents’ consent before having an abortion. However, minors can turn to the courts to seek a legal, confidential judicial bypass when they fear they’ll be abused at home because of their pregnancy, or don’t have a parent to consent.

HB 3994 by state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), among many things, increases the burden of proof on the minor from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing” evidence, a change House Democrats took issue with early in the debate.

An amendment by state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) tried to strike that change from Morrison’s bill altogether, while state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) attempted to add an exception for victims of rape, sexual assault or incest.

“What we put in place here is making a very traumatic situation even more traumatic,” Howard said while discussing her amendment. “She can’t just tell the judge that she’s been raped, that she’s had incest committed by a family member. … She has to be re-victimized and re-traumatized to repeat the circumstances in enough detail to obtain the court order that she seeks.”

State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)
State Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria)

Since the Legislature set up the bypass process in 1999, many right-to-life groups and legislators have worked to “reform” it. As state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), one of the bill’s authors, put it during Wednesday’s debate, if “government is going to step in between a parent and a child, they need to have a very, very good reason.” However, state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University) reminded her colleagues that the original language was in fact set up by conservatives.

Judicial bypass “was created and championed and governed all by Republicans,” she said during the debate. “Are you as confused as I am?”

Currently, a bypass application can be filed in any county in Texas, but HB 3994 would require an application to be filed in a minor’s county of residence; a neighboring county, if her home county has a population of 10,000 people or fewer; or the county in which her abortion provider is located. The bill also requires county clerks to gather and make public data that names judges who grant bypasses.

“Family law is rife with violence, and it is not unusual for judges to be targeted,” state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) said as she laid out an amendment to eliminate the data collection requirement.

Throughout the debate, Democrats made other fervent but unfruitful attempts to change Texas’ parental notification law, such as allowing a grandparent or older sibling to consent to a minor’s abortion in the absence of a parent, or exemptions for teenagers who are already mothers or who have graduated from high school or have their GED. As House Democrats tried to pepper Morrison with questions throughout the debate, she repeatedly declined to answer, or wasn’t in the chamber at all.

Another crop of amendments targeted the government-issued identification requirement, which many House Democrats see as a “de facto ban on abortion” for poor women or recent immigrants who may not have an ID. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to broaden the list of acceptable forms of identification to include student IDs or IDs issued by foreign countries, such as a birth certificate or passport.

An amendment by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), which mirrors language from a bill he previously filed that imposes even greater restrictions, was the only one to make it onto HB 3994 before the debate came to a grinding halt, thanks to a point of order—an allegation that a procedural rule has not been followed—by state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) close to 11 p.m.

After deliberating, Martinez Fischer agreed to withdraw his point of order when Republicans also agreed to jettison their forthcoming amendments. Suddenly, it was a over in a snap—the House approved Krause’s amendment, and then ultimately passed HB 3994 with a 98 to 47 vote.

“In the end, there were probably several amendments that would have been controversial and very divisive [that] were avoided because of the point of order,” Martinez Fischer told reporters after the vote.

The House must give final approval on HB 3994 before midnight tonight; then the bill heads to the Senate.

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 10:20 am CST