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Reproductive Rights

'Choose Life' – and Defund Women's Health Care

By Jordan Smith, Fri., May 8, 2009

Sen. John Carona
Sen. John Carona
Photo by John Anderson

With a host of problematic issues vying for lawmakers' attention this session, Gov. Rick Perry made clear beginning in December what two of his priorities would be: the creation of a "Choose Life" license plate and amending the so-called "informed consent" law to add a requirement that women seeking abortion first undergo an ultrasound examination. The life-plate bill (Senate Bill 1098 by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas) would grant revenue generated from the plate to nonprofit groups that "support" pregnant women and provide for the needs of children awaiting adoption (that is, unlicensed and unregulated "crisis pregnancy centers"); it made it through the Senate on partisan lines May 1, free of an amendment that would have directed all revenues to go directly to groups promoting and facilitating adoption.

Meanwhile, after telling Sen. Eliot Shap­leigh, D-El Paso, he'd sleep on it, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, rejected an amendment on May 1 to his ultrasound bill (aka, the "informed consent" bill, SB 182) that would have corrected information in the state's "Woman's Right to Know" pamphlet. Given to women seeking abortion, the pamphlet contains information on fetal development and alleged risks associated with abortion – including the medically inaccurate suggestion that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, a favorite ploy of the Right to Life crowd, whose proponents seem to be the only source of information connecting the two things.

Medical research studies – including studies from the American Cancer Society and the Nation­al Cancer Institute – say that there is in fact no credible link between breast cancer and abortion, but such details don't deter Patrick. "I think the language [of the current] law is very clear," he told his colleagues. "There are some studies that say yes and some studies that say no." Thus, he said, he simply couldn't accept Shapleigh's amendment – besides, he noted, he promised Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, last week that he wouldn't make any substantial changes to the bill, a dig at Watson's stated opposition and suspicion that the bill's scaled-back language could be amended in the House to be more intrusive.

Originally, the bill required women seeking abortion to undergo an ultrasound whether or not it was medically necessary. Now, as passed on May 1 by the Senate on a 20-10 vote, the bill requires that a doctor offer to perform an ultrasound as well as show it to the woman, describe it to her, and have her hear a fetal heartbeat. Also part of the Senate version is a requirement that a woman's doctor not only provide the "Woman's Right to Know" pamphlet but also "explain" its content – that is, the stages of fetal development – before performing an abortion. (Both Watson and Fort Worth Dem Sen. Wendy Davis pointed out this change in the law to Patrick, but he insisted he had not changed the law in this area and told Davis he didn't have time to "address every issue you want to bring up." A clearly irritated Davis replied, "But that's what we do here." Or so we thought.) The House version of the ultrasound bill, filed by Rep. Frank "the Fetus" Corte, R-San Antonio, is still pending in committee.

As crunch time hits the Capitol, the fates of numerous other proposals that would affect women's health care, reproductive rights, and sexuality education are up in the air. Sadly, measures that would improve the quality of sex education in Texas public schools – including a modest proposal that sex ed curricula employ medically accurate information (House Bill 741 by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio) – remain stalled in the House Public Education Committee.

Simmering beneath all these bills is the question of whether House and Senate budget conferees will try to reallocate any of the more than $40 million currently dedicated to providing comprehensive reproductive health care for poor and uninsured women. For thousands of women, reproductive health services – including gynecological exams as well as screenings for breast cancer, hypertension, and diabetes – are their sole access to health care. Nonetheless, a handful of lawmakers have doggedly tried to reallocate these funds, part of the anti-abortionists' crusade to "defund Planned Parenthood." Unfortun­ate­ly, any move to strip Planned Parenthood of funds also threatens dozens of other providers of family-planning services across the state – and the result could be that more than 100,000 women would find themselves without access to basic health care.

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