Probe-Before-Abortion Bill Moves Forward

Republicans and their probes: Coming to a vagina near you

Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, wields an ultrasound probe at the front podium; not even a horribly outdated streaming video can disguise the size of this tool.
Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, wields an ultrasound probe at the front podium; not even a horribly outdated streaming video can disguise the size of this tool.

After two days of debate, the Texas House late March 3 voted 107-42 to pass the ultrasound-before-abortion bill authored by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville. The bill, a more stringent version of that filed in the Senate by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, must now be reconciled with the Senate's version before a vote for final passage.

The bill would require women seeking abortion to undergo an ultrasound between 24 and 72 hours before having the procedure performed; it would require a doctor to display the sonogram to the woman, audibly play the fetal heartbeat, and to simultaneously provide a verbal description of fetal development. Patrick's version passed the Senate on a 21-10 vote, with Dem Sens. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville; Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio; and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voting in favor of the measure.

This is the second time Republican lawmakers have pushed this bill. It died last session but has moved with lightning speed through the Lege this time around. Thanks to Gov. Rick Perry's tagging it with "emergency" status, lawmakers have been able to put the measure above all other pending matters.

Ostensibly, the bill is meant to ensure that a woman's "consent" to terminate her pregnancy is "informed." Realistically, however, it's pretty clear to many – including several lawmakers speaking out against the measure on the floor last week – that the intent here is really to dissuade women from exercising their right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. "It seems to me that the motive of the bill is something different," said Rep. Jessica Farrar while questioning Miller about the bill. It seems that the design is actually to "stop" women from having abortions, she said. "That'd be fine with me," Miller responded.

The bill does not contain an exemption for victims of rape or incest (Austin Dem Rep. Dawnna Dukes suggested that by not accepting an amendment to create such an exception, Texas lawmakers are actually just creating a way to cover up bad acts by "some dirty old men"), and, after a tense back-and-forth about what exactly constitutes a "medical emergency," it remains unclear what kind of life-threatening situation would exempt a woman from the procedure. In rejecting an amendment that would create an exception for rape and incest victims, Miller said that a victim of either crime could simply look away from the sonogram image or refuse to listen to the heartbeat. At one point early in the debate on March 2, Miller actually said that if a woman didn't want to see the image, she could simply "walk out of the room if she wants to." That is an unlikely option since the ultrasound test at issue here takes place while a woman is on her back, on a table, with her legs in stirrups, while an ultrasound wand (called a transducer) probes her vagina. "I'm not sure [you] understand the level of government intrusion" in this bill, said Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

Indeed, the vast majority of pregnancy terminations occur during the first trimester and as such are not far enough along to be seen well via a "jelly-on-the-belly" ultrasound procedure, as Alvarado put it. Instead, these early-term ultrasounds are typically done via a transvaginal procedure, conducted internally with an ultrasound probe – a very invasive procedure, and one that some lawmakers felt was too intrusive for the government to mandate regardless of whether the test is medically necessary. Moreover, since the majority of abortion providers already perform an ultrasound prior to performing an abortion – the test provides information about gestational age and the position of the uterus – Miller's (and Patrick's) bill would actually mean that a woman seeking an abortion may have to undergo two separate ultrasound procedures within a three-day window.

Then there's the question of who will be paying for all these "free" ultrasounds that women will be provided. According to the bill, a list of free providers will be given to a woman so that she may avail herself of a charity ultrasound if she can't otherwise afford the expense. But who's actually picking up the tab, Rep. Mando Martinez, D-Weslaco, asked Miller. "Charitable organizations" funded by "donations" would pick up the tab, he replied. "In my community it would be the pregnancy crisis center. They're a real asset to our community." Indeed, so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" are unlicensed and unregulated entities that don't provide medical care but do offer pregnancy tests and counseling to women facing unplanned pregnancies; CPCs promote only the option of carrying a pregnancy to term.

As it happens, Texas actually funds a number of these centers, via an $8 million biennial earmark for the Alternatives to Abortion program, created by the Lege in 2005. The money goes to the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, which administers the program and pays out money to individual CPCs that are part of the network. Since the program's inception, it hasn't exactly been a fiscal success: When the TPCN failed to meet program goals it set for itself, it simply changed those goals; in 2007, 40% of its budget went to administrative costs – including nice yearly raises for Executive Director Vincent Friedewald (see "Texas Pregnancy Care Network Proves Unimpressive," April 18, 2008). Despite its underperformance, the Alternatives to Abortion program in 2009 was given a 60% budget increase. Indeed, the Senate this year has proposed giving the program yet another raise, though the House budget has recommended zeroing it out. What will happen there remains to be seen, but it does appear that if the CPC-funding program remains intact, it means Texas taxpayers will be footing the bill for the soon-to-be-required ultrasound procedures.

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ultrasound bill, Eddie Lucio, Judith Zaffirini, Rick Perry, Dawnna Dukes, Alternatives to Abortion, crisis pregnancy centers, Legislature, sonogram bill

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