At a Senate hearing Wednesday, three Republicans carrying anti-abortion bills — all men — agreed on one thing: The proposals are not about protecting women’s health and safety, a motive conservatives have previously cited for limiting access to abortion.
State Senator Kirk Watson, a Democrat from Austin, asked each GOP senator the same question: “Can you point me to anything in this bill that enhances the pregnant women’s health and safety?”
“The health of the woman is not the target of Senate Bill 415,” said Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. The proposal would criminalize what experts say is one of the safest and most common methods of abortion in the second trimester of a pregnancy.
“My bill is not about that,” said Senator Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “My bill strictly deals with the dignity of the unborn.” SB 258 would require burial or cremation of fetal remains resulting from an abortion.
Senator Charles Schwertner, an orthopedic surgeon from Georgetown, deflected Watson’s question regarding his SB 8, which would ban what he refers to as “partial birth abortion” and the sale or donation of fetal remains. Instead, as evidence of the bill’s necessity, he repeatedly cited discredited videos released in 2015 by an anti-abortion group that prompted a fruitless investigation into Planned Parenthood’s nonexistent sales of fetal tissue.
The rhetorical shift is remarkable. In 2013, when Republicans passed House Bill 2, sweeping anti-abortion legislation that resulted in the majority of the state’s abortion clinics shutting down, they were careful to argue that it was intended to protect the health of the mother. But that rationale was shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that two major provisions of the law were medically unjustified and unconstitutional. Abortion rights advocates long contended that the backers of HB 2 were only maintaining a fiction about women’s health for legal and political reasons.
Now that HB 2 is history, GOP lawmakers certainly seem more free to describe anti-abortion legislation as focused on the fetus.
The bills use graphic language and terms disputed by medical professionals, opponents say.
“Dismemberment” and “partial-birth” abortions are not medical terms, said Dr. Diane Horvath-Cosper, who has been a licensed OB-GYN for more than 10 years.
“The terms are intended to be inflammatory, and they don’t refer to any particular medical procedure,” said Horvath-Cosper. “They’re very hard for doctors to interpret what lawmakers mean when they put these in the bills, because they’re not medical.”
One opponent called it a “rhetorical strategy used to describe abortion in ways that the general public finds appalling,” during his testimony.
Perry’s SB 415 would criminalize “dismemberment abortions,” seemingly referring to dilation and evacuation abortions, one of the most common methods of abortion in the second trimester of a pregnancy, said Horvath-Cosper. It is one of the safest methods for terminating a pregnancy and is a standard surgical procedure not specific to elective abortion. It is also used to manage pregnancy loss in cases such as a miscarriage, she said.
Targeting certain procedures that occur in the second trimester — approximately week 14 to week 28 of a pregnancy — could be seen as an attempt to pull back even further the state’s current ban on abortions after the 20th week.
Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, told Perry during his testimony that he could not support SB 415.
“We just don’t think this is going to survive a federal court challenge, and we cannot recommend it to you,” said Pojman. “I just don’t believe we should be reckless. There’s a couple of provisions in the House that are asking for complete bans on abortion — we cannot recommend that. That’s going to fail.”
Other anti-abortion activists testified that the bills don’t do enough to completely “abolish abortion” in the state, a plank of the Texas Republican Party platform. They suggested that the Senate committee follow the lead of Arlington Representative Tony Tinderholt’s HB 948, also known as “The Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act.”
SB 8, proposed by Schwertner, aims to ban what he refers to as “partial-birth abortions,” a non-medical term first coined by the National Right to Life Committee in 1995. Under the bill, physicians would be barred from performing so-called partial-birth abortions, unless to save the life of the mother.
SB 8 would also prohibit a person or entities from “buying, selling, acquiring, receiving, selling or otherwise transferring” human fetal tissue from elective abortions, and create felony charges for violators.
During the first panel of public testimony, Schwertner slammed his gavel with so much force that he shattered the glass table in an attempt to let Maggie Hennessy, an intern for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, know that her allotted two minutes to speak had ended.
Passionate testimonies in support of the proposals were riddled with the phrases “baby body parts,” “murder of babies” and comparisons of legal abortion to the Holocaust.
Julie Ann Nitsch, who spoke in opposition to the measures, called out GOP senators. “You should be ashamed of yourself. I am ashamed to be a Texan because of you,” she said.
SB 258, filed by Huffines, would require burial or cremation of fetal remains resulting from an abortion. The bill would force providers to give pregnant women a form indicating which method she prefers; it would have to be completed before the procedure could be performed.
Women would have the option of releasing their contact information to a nonprofit organization to cover the costs of the disposal if they are financially unable to do so, a move abortion advocates say could put women in the crosshairs of anti-abortion groups. The bill is similar to rules adopted by the Texas Department of State Health Services in July 2016. In January, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks blocked the regulations.
The three proposals, which were left pending by the committee, are among more than two dozen anti-abortion bills filed this session. On Monday, Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed SB 855 to “prohibit taxpayer dollars at the state and local level from going to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers and affiliates.”
“They’re not meant to be about health care,” said Blake Rocap, legislative counsel for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, about the bills. “They’re all meant to make it harder for Texans to get abortions, make it harder for physicians in the state of Texas to provide the safest medical care that they are trained and know how to provide.”