The Austin Chronicle

Senate Speeds Through Anti-Choice Bills

By Mary Tuma, July 25, 2017, 12:12pm, Newsdesk

Barely a week into the special session and the Texas Senate is on a dizzying fast-track to advance anti-choice bills. With normal operating rules suspended, the Senate unleashed the floodgates to usher along a handful of bills restricting reproductive rights.

SB 4 by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, prohibits transactions between county and city governments and abortion providers and affiliates. With state and federal law already banning taxpayer funds from flowing toward abortion care, the bill encompasses lease agreements, a thinly veiled shot at the city of Austin’s nominal lease to Planned Parenthood on East Seventh. “This bill does one thing and that's target Planned Parenthood,” Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said during Friday’s Health and Human Services Committee debate. Watson stressed that the Downtown Austin center doesn’t offer abortion care, so in effect, SB 4 could shut down a clinic that provides preventative health care, including cancer screenings and birth control. As one pro-choice witness put it, “We are not subsidizing abortion, we are subsidizing everything that prevents abortion." The Committee passed SB 4 in a 6-3 vote.

Meanwhile, the full Senate gave preliminary approval to SB 10 by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which requires doctors to report abortion complications to the state health department within 72 hours (currently requirements allow for 30 days) and submit information including the patient’s race, marital status, and number of previous abortions. If in violation, doctors would be slapped with a $500 fine. The Senate also passed on an initial vote the similar SB 73 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, which increases reporting requirements for minors who undergo abortion to include whether or not they obtained parental consent or a judicial bypass. Attorney Susan Hays with Jane’s Due Process testified against the bill during its Friday hearing before the Health Committee, calling it another attempt to “barrage” abortion clinics – which already report frequently to the state – with burdensome requirements. “[Abortion clinics] get audited constantly. It’s no secret that the goal of that is intimidation,” said Hays. Other pro-choice groups argued the bills infringe on the privacy of doctors and patients.

On the Senate floor, Campbell – employing twisted logic that barely conceals her anti-choice agenda – claimed the low number of abortion complications in Texas must mean the data is flawed and therefore additional reporting is necessary. “The percentage is so small that we’re doing something wrong,” said Campbell, disregarding the fact that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed, and 14 times safer than pregnancy. Out of 55,287 abortions in 2015, there were only 25 reported complications (or a 0.05% rate), according to the Department of State Health Services data. When presented with actual statistical facts, she remained defiant. “I believe that number is absolutely false,” she said, offering no concrete evidence to counter the state figures. The Senate granted SB 10 and SB 73 initial approval in a 22-9 vote.

The full Senate is soon expected to hear SB 8 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, a revival of failed regular session legislation that would bar insurance coverage for abortion care, with no exception for rape or incest survivors. On Saturday, July 22, the Senate Committee on Business & Commerce took up and passed the legislation in a 7-2 vote. Under the potential law, women would be forced to somehow predict the need for abortion and purchase supplemental coverage. "I know people who have gotten an abortion who have a problem with abortion,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, underscoring the unpredictability of the procedure. “This is by far the most emotional issue we’ve had to deal with at the Legislature.”

As Nan Kirkpatrick of the Texas Equal Access Fund testified, the bill “stigmatizes” abortion by painting it as something other than health care, which appears to be the exact point for some senators. “I disagree with anyone that says abortion is health care. It’s taking the life of a baby,” said Sen. Campbell during the Saturday morning hearing. Her pro-life colleague, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, failed to support the extreme measure. “I am pro-life but do not support bills that do not protect the unborn and thwart women’s constitutional right to an abortion,” said Zaffirini.

Amid the abortion bill frenzy, the Senate did manage to speed through one piece of legislation meant to (at least ostensibly) help women: SB 17 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, extends the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force, a group studying the alarmingly high death rate among new moms in the state, by four years. Despite the fact Texas holds the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world (nearly doubling between 2010 and 2014) the Legislature did little to combat the glaring problem during regular session, eliciting nationwide criticism. So it’s no wonder the Senate granted SB 17 unanimous approval on second reading on Monday, July 24, after the Health and Human Services Committee passed it along to the upper chamber on Friday, July 21.

However, a handful of attempts by Democrats to effectively reduce the rate – instead of just study it – by expanding health coverage were slapped down, casting doubt on whether or not Kolkhorst and the Senate GOP are truly concerned with maternal mortality or just paying lip service to balance out anti-choice votes. For instance, Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, proposed an amendment to extend Medicaid coverage for new moms from 60 days to 12 months. As colleague Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, pointed out moments earlier, the majority of women who died after giving birth did so following those 60 days, possibly because they lacked access to post-partum care. Kolkhorst opposed the helpful measure due to its fiscal note, and the amendment eventually failed.

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