Abortion Regs Hearing: Déjá Vu All Over Again
Women dressed in Mad Men-era garb and dozens wearing bright orange T-shirts that read, "My Family Values Women" gathered in the Senate chamber Thursday afternoon for a committee hearing on a quartet of measures that opponents say are designed solely to restrict access to abortion and to drive back in time women's reproductive rights.
Thanks to Gov. Rick Perry's adding abortion regulations to the special session's call, four divisive measures that failed to pass during the regular session are back – banning abortion at 20 weeks (the so-called "Pre-Born Fetal Pain Bill"), requiring all abortion clinics to transform into ambulatory surgical centers, requiring all abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of every clinic where they practice, and requiring two in-person visits with a doctor for women seeking medical abortion – and without any changes to make them more palatable.
With Republicans holding a majority of spots on the Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, there's no doubt the bills will be passed on to the entire chamber for consideration; whether they'll make it out and across the rotunda before the end of the called session remains to be seen.
The Thursday afternoon hearing was indeed a déjá vu, with the same players returning to the Capitol to testify against each of the meausres – including Texas NARAL's Blake Rocap, and Carole Metcalf, who testified emotionally this spring about the horror of learning at 20 weeks that her fetus was terminally ill – and a contingent of enthusiastic supporters – including former Planned Parenthood clinic director-turned pro-life movement stalwart Abby Johnson, and Elizabeth Graham director of the politically-powerful Texas Right to Life.
To supporters, the measures would ensure that women receive high-quality care when seeking abortion and would protect "pre-born" children from feeling pain. To opponents, the new proposed regulations are unnecessary and designed solely to shutter abortion clinic operations, and to force women to carry to term pregnancies regardless their individual circumstances.
Indeed, the proposal to require abortion clinics to become ambulatory surgical centers – facilities that provide a host of procedures, from plastic surgery to endoscopy on a "day surgery" basis without overnight stay – would likely have the effect of closing all but five of the state's abortion-providing facilities. The costs associated with building an ASC (or retrofitting an existing facility) is extreme – roughly $300 per square foot, a witness testified – and the majority of regulations deal with physical plant requirements, not factors that impact patient care, providers testified. Currently there are more than 416 ASCs across the state, but just five that perform abortion – including Planned Parenthood's South Austin facility.
As far as fetal pain goes, there is no conclusive evidence that a fetus can feel pain prior to the third trimester, despite conservative lawmakers' insistence that the medical literature proves just that. Moreover, 20-week (and even earlier) bans have been rejected by courts – a circumstance that prompted Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, to question the reasonableness of an omnibus measure, including the pain ban, proposed by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. Hegar was unfazed; looking at court decisions isn't particularly informative, he asserted. "My point is, I don't think we're able to compare [those] to what we're doing here today," he said.
Indeed, several supporters of the measure, including Graham, this time around included in their testimony a desire that the bill remove an exception to the ban in cases where the fetus suffers from gross fetal abnormality. Graham testified that TRL would prefer to see that deleted, because it could encourage women to seek abortion after 20 weeks for a fetus that may be born with a disability. "We'd hate to see [women be able] to take the lives of pre-born children with disabilities," she said.
On that point Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, agreed, but questioned Hegar why the other exception in the bill – for cases where the physical health of the mother is in jeopardy – did not also incorporate an exemption for psychological conditions. Hegar said physical and psychological issues aren't equal. "Physical and psychological are both important," he said, "but psychological, that's not life threatening."
Generally, the hearing – unusually short for hearings concerning reproductive rights, clocking in at under four hours long – was a near verbatim repeat of hearings on these measures during the regular session. (For example, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, again demonstrated the limits of her knowledge on the topic: Texas fails to track complications arising from abortion, she asserted at one point. No, Whole Woman's Health founder and President Amy Hagstrom Miller corrected, that is actually among a host of strict regulations imposed on abortion providers and tracked by the Department of State Health Services. Well, abortion clinics don't have advanced life support nurses or crash carts, as do surgical centers, she continued. Yes, actually, they do, said Hagstrom Miller, whose group operates both types of facilities.)
The committee did not vote on the bills Thursday evening, but are expected to do so when the group reconvenes today.