The Austin Chronicle

Texas House Advances Anti-Choice Package Bill

By Mary Tuma, May 19, 2017, 9:45pm, Newsdesk

Disregarding constitutional concerns and exceptions for survivors of sexual assault, the Texas House tentatively passed a package anti-choice bill that would force health providers to bury or cremate fetal tissue following an abortion and bar the safest type of second trimester abortion.

It now inches closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Senate Bill 8, carried in the House by Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, also bans the donation of fetal tissue from abortion to medical research and redundantly outlaws a procedure anti-choice politicians refer to as “partial birth abortion.” The procedure refers to intact dilation and extraction (D&X), barred by the Supreme Court in 2007. After six hours of intense debate on Friday, May 19, the House advanced the broad measure with a 96-47 vote.

An amendment by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Ft. Worth, transformed the already harsh anti-choice bill into an even more punitive version. Klick successfully added language that bans so-called “dismemberment abortions” – the non-medical term used by anti-choice advocates to describe dilation and evacuation (D&E), one of the most common and safest types of abortion a woman can undergo during the second trimester. House Republicans spared women compassion by voting down an amendment by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, that would have made an exception if the mother's life is in jeopardy and one by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, that sought to carve out exceptions for survivors of rape and incest. In fact, Klick encouraged her House colleagues to vote against those measure.

The flurry of amendments from Democrats included keeping the “partial birth abortion” ban intact but striking the rest of the bill; excluding rape/incest survivors from forced fetal tissue burial rules; and allowing someone to opt out of the fetal burial rule if it violates their “sincerely held religious beliefs” – a term conservatives have employed this session to further discriminate against the LGBTQ community. However, all Dem amendments were struck down.

But one Republican-authored amendment to SB 8 proved to be even too extreme for conservative politicians. Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler (the mind behind the “Papers Please” provision of anti-immigrant SB 4) attempted to revive his stalled bill that removes the exception for women with severe fetal abnormalities to obtain abortion care at 20 weeks. (One of the remaining parts of HB 2 bans the procedure at 20 weeks.) Schaefer tried a similar maneuver in 2015 with no success. Unable to defend the cruel amendment with medical fact, Schaefer simply repeated that, “babies are born in the image of God.” Republican Burkett said the amendment “goes one step too far” while Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, urged colleagues to vote against the proposal, saying it shows we are “willing to play God with people’s lives.” It was eventually tabled 71-65.

Now with the historic Supreme Court ruling against 2013’s HB 2 on their side, Democrats and Houston Republican Rep. Sarah Davis, warned House members that the similar omnibus SB 8 would inevitably be found unconstitutional. "I think it's very obvious that most of the bill is plainly unconstitutional,” said Davis. In fact, earlier this year a federal judge blocked the state health department's fetal burial rule provision (similar to what is found in SB 8), calling it merely a “pretext for restricting abortion access.” Seeing the writing on the wall, Burkett added a “severability clause” amendment to SB 8, allowing the rest of the bill to stand even if part of it is found unconstitutional. Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, called the amendment a “tacit admission” that the legislation will be struck by courts. "Do you know that this bill is unconstitutional?,” said Turner. “Why don't we just stop passing unconstitutional laws?”

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, asked Burkett if she had any evidence showing the bill would benefit women's health and safety in any way – a requirement for states seeking to pass abortion-restrictive laws in the post-Whole Woman’s Health ruling world. Burkett failed to say yes. The main purpose, said Burkett, is to “align Texas law with federal law.”

The most powerful speech of the night came from a tearful and emotionally charged Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who recalled the days before Roe v. Wade, reminding lawmakers that women will seek abortion regardless of the law. “There is no reason to come here session after session and drive women into the shadows for illegal abortion – but this bill will do that,” said Howard. The bill, she cautioned, also risks raising the already alarmingly high Texas maternal mortality rate – an issue so-called “pro-life” legislators have failed to prioritize this session. “This is political interference in medicine at its worst,” said Howard. “Politicians have no place in the medical exam room. We can sit here self-righteously and decide that we always know what's best for every person, but we do not. If you actually want to stop abortion, then help me stop unwanted pregnancies,” she pleaded.

If it gains final approval from the House (a highly likely outcome), it moves to the Senate, where changes between the two versions will be squared away. If accepted, it then hits anti-choice Abbott’s desk to be signed into law. The legislative session ends May 29.

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