LegeLand: A Bill To 'Protect Our Women'

Yet another fight over abortion

Sen. Dan Patrick
Sen. Dan Patrick (Photo by John Anderson)

One thing is absolutely clear after the Feb. 9 marathon hearing on Senate Bill 16, Houston GOP Sen. Dan Patrick's ultrasound-required-before-abortion bill: None of the middle-aged white men on the Senate's State Affairs Com­mittee were going to let concerns about the coerciveness or intrusiveness (or the constitutionality) of Patrick's bill get in the way of passing it out of committee and on to the full Senate for consideration. And that's exactly what happened, on a 7-2 vote.

Case in point: After emotional testimony from Austin couple Thomas Ademski and Brenda Sendejo about the painful decision they made in 2008 to terminate their 13-week-old pregnancy when finding out the unborn child was terminally ill, several senators – including committee Chair Robert Dun­can, R-Lubbock – seemed to throw up their hands with a what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it attitude regarding Ademski and Sendejo's concerns about how the proposed measure would affect women who are terminating because of a gross fetal abnormality. Sendejo told the committee it would be torture to have to undergo another ultrasound while her doctor provided a simultaneous verbal description of the fetal development. Duncan was unfazed, noting that the procedure was "still an elective abortion" and not medically necessary to save her life. "You may have a political exception to this bill – I can understand that; people do," he said.

Making its third appearance at the Capitol, the ultrasound bill this time has been elevated to "emergency" status by Gov. Rick Perry, meaning lawmakers may vault consideration of the measure over all other issues they're facing – like absolutely everything having to do with the dismal state of fiscal affairs – in order to ram this measure through to passage. And it seems that they're determined to do just that.

The bill, in its original form, would require women seeking abortion to undergo an ultrasound at least two hours before the procedure. It would also require the woman to view the sonogram and listen to both the fetal heartbeat as well as the description of fetal development. Patrick, who has repeatedly said that this bill is solely about making sure women have all the information they need before taking this irreversible step, last week tweaked the language that previously allowed for a pregnant woman to "avert her eyes" during the procedure to say that she could refuse to look at the image or hear the heartbeat. (However, the clumsy substitute language has left many believing that despite a woman's refusal, a doctor must nonetheless display the image and play audio of the heartbeat in order to comply with the law). Even after witnesses expressed concern about the language causing problems, the bill still did not contain any exception for rape, incest, or fetal abnormality.

Though the hearing attracted the familiar faces of abortion politics at the Capitol – Jonathan Saenz of the Liberty Institute, for example, who proclaimed that this bill was a good way to "protect our women" – there were also several new faces, such as Abby Johnson, the former Planned Par­ent­hood clinic director from Bryan who is the newest anti-abortion advocate, a turnabout supposedly prompted by her seeing a fetus on a sonogram struggling not to be aborted. (Nate Blakeslee's account of Johnson's transformation in the February 2010 issue of Texas Monthly raises serious questions about the veracity of her tale – and thus her testimony before the committee.) Nonetheless, the testimony was generally par for the course. Those in favor of the measure say it's just one extra layer of protection to ensure that a woman's "consent" to abortion is "informed." This has become the rallying cry of social conservatives seeking to exercise more control over women's reproductive lives. (In 2003, lawmakers created the Woman's Right To Know pamphlet, which women must be given 24 hours prior to the procedure and which contains information on and pictures of fetal development – making portions of Patrick's ultrasound bill redundant – as well as the medical misinformation that abortion is related to breast cancer.) Testify­ing in favor of the bill, for example, Johnson said it was necessary because Planned Par­enthood routinely fails to allow women to view an ultrasound image of the fetus even when they ask to do so. Though Scott Spear, medical director of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, had earlier testified that is not the case, his testimony was clearly rejected – as was that of other doctors who testified that the measure represents an intrusion by the state into the doctor-patient relationship.

Indeed, Patrick praised Johnson for "setting the record straight about what's happening at Planned Parenthood" – suggesting again that the seeming animosity toward women is really more clearly directed at PP, which some lawmakers seem to believe has some desire to increase the number of abortions performed in Texas – a procedure that makes up just 5% of its business, according to Planned Parenthood's Spear; the remainder of its work is focused on family planning, well-woman checks, and other disease screenings.

Regardless, the fact that the bill did not contain exceptions for victims of rape or incest, or for women who are facing difficult decisions, like Sendejo, because of fetal abnormalities, was a major sticking point for San Antonio Dem Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who had a several terse exchanges with her colleagues during the hearing as she tried to explain, repeatedly, her objections to the measure. Because of the nature of the exam, there wouldn't be a way for a woman to ignore, let alone refuse to listen to, the fetal description: "[You] have not been on a cold table ... with your feet in stirrups," she told her male colleagues. You're "spread wide eagle; you cannot get up. That's what I think is offensive," she continued. "I'm sorry, guys; you can't get up out of that extremely vulnerable position ... and this is an extreme burden on this woman."

After some negotiation, a bare-bones exception was drafted: A woman who is a victim of rape or incest and has filed a police report to that effect may be exempt from the law, as would a woman with some sort of documented proof that her fetus suffers from a gross abnormality.

Even GOP Houston Sen. Joan Huffman seemed affected by the Ademski and Sen­dejo testimony, as well as that of University of Houston Law Center professor Leslie Griffin, a constitutional law expert, who opined that a woman subject to this law would be a "captive audience" in the doctor's office and her doctor a "compelled" speaker, both in possible violation of the First Amendment. In the end, however, Huffman apparently wasn't impressed enough to change her vote; only Sens. Van de Putte and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, voted against moving the bill out of committee.

The bill will go to the full Senate before being carried over to the House, where it will undoubtedly be subject to another emotional hearing and almost assuredly passed out of committee.

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abortion, Senate Bill 16, 82nd Legislature, legislature, Dan Patrick, ultrasound bill, sonogram bill, Robert Duncan, Planned Parenthood

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