Texas Senate Speeds This Year's Abortion Bills Through Lege

GOP lawmakers push half-dozen anti-choice bills restricting abortion care, access

A patient room at an Austin-area abortion provider (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last year, as Texas grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, local abortion assistance group Jane's Due Process saw a surge of requests from teens needing its help. The nonprofit helps secure judicial bypass – permission from a judge allowing minors to consent to abortion care without parental involvement. The pandemic has already magnified the many burdens Texans face to accessing abortion care; for teens seeking confidential care, those are even heavier.

In a first-in-the-nation move, the city of Austin stepped up even before the pandemic to begin investing in abortion support services, and its funding allowed JDP to respond to the surge. "We don't know what we would have done without it," Rosann Mariappuram, JDP's executive director, tells the Chronicle. "It was really incredible to be able to respond to the huge increase in need here in Austin with help from our Council." Of course, the Texas Legislature wants to change that, and legislation to stifle such funding advanced in the Senate this week.

Austin has earmarked a total of $400,000 to fund groups helping Texans access abortion care. The first grants went to provide for lodging, travel, child care, and food (Fund Texas Choice); doula care in communities of color (Mama Sana Vibrant Woman); and attorney fees, travel, and lodging for teens (JDP). In early March, Council added $100,000 to focus on marginalized communities of color, immigrants, young people, and the LGBTQIA community.

Trying to stop them is Senate Bill 650 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braun­fels), who in 2019 led the Lege to forbid any "taxpayer resource transaction" between a city and an "abortion provider or affiliate." That was designed to quash Austin's partnership with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, which operates its decades-old clinic on E. Seventh St. in a city-owned building; Campbell views Austin's abortion support program as an attempt to evade that law, even though none of the recipient groups provides abortion care.

Mariappuram says SB 650 would throttle other Texas cities that want to follow Austin's model and rural communities whose residents already lack many care services. "Who wants to take away child care coverage during the pandemic for families?" says Mariappuram. "You're taking away paying for gas and food and staying in a hotel overnight. It's so shocking to see families with less resources attacked in this way."

The Senate has found the time since mid-March, as multiple huge crises have burdened much of the state, to push seven anti-choice bills forward. Most onerous is SB 8 by Senate State Affairs Chair Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which would ban abortion once a "heartbeat" can be detected through transvaginal ultrasound at around six weeks, well before most pregnancies are recognized or confirmed. This de facto abortion ban creates an exception for medical emergencies but not for cases of rape or incest.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, author of this year's "heartbeat" Senate Bill 8, in 2017 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Dr. Amna Dermish, associate medical director for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, tells the Chronicle the "heartbeat" narrative is specious. At six weeks, an embryo doesn't have a heart that beats, just a set of cells that can become one, which create electrical activity captured by ultrasound. "I think Texas lawmakers are trying to capitalize on an emotional reaction that we have to this idea of a 'heartbeat,' but it's not actually based on any medical science," says Dermish, an OB-GYN and abortion provider in South Austin. "As a medical professional, it's really impossible to overstate how terrible this law would be for people in Texas who need abortions."

The nonexistent "heartbeat", and the bills using it as a way to ban abortion outright, were invented by ultraconservative Christian ministry Faith2Action. Its founder Janet Porter testified to Hughes's committee that if her "purple" home state of Ohio could pass a "heartbeat bill," then surely Texas could. Ten states in all, including South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi, have passed "heartbeat" bills, and Hughes has bemoaned that Texas is "behind" in this race to trample on reproductive rights. None have taken effect due to court challenges. To keep that from happening here, as currently written, SB 8 contains language that tries to give any Texan standing to sue an abortion provider to enforce the law. During floor debate this week, Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, warned that that the bill would effectively "shut down" abortion providers who would face an "avalanche" of suits from "an army" of private citizens under a law that will likely be held unconstitutional. SB 8, he told colleagues, is a "sad encroachment on our constitutional rights."

In real life, Texans are not hostile to choice. A plurality of Texans (37%) in a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll felt state abortion law should be less strict, which the Lege hasn't contemplated in decades; a Progress Texas poll from early March found 52% of Texas voters supporting abortion rights to some degree, with only 39% saying it should be illegal across the board. The Guttmacher Institute has counted nearly 400 bills introduced in statehouses this year, many designed to create "court cases to give the [U.S. Supreme Court] the chance to weaken or even overturn abortion rights," says Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher's state policy director. "And if it does, states will have all of these bans waiting in the wings."

Nash tells the Chronicle Texas lawmakers likely feel "pent-up energy" to move aggressively now that other Southern states have enacted harsher laws. Also now in the House are bills to ban medication abortion after seven weeks and prevent mailing the drugs to patients (SB 394, by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville); require abortion patients to seek counseling from a faith-based crisis pregnancy center (SB 802, by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney); and trigger a complete abortion ban in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned (SB 9, also by Paxton; the low bill numbers are "priority" items for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.)

Former Travis County Judge Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, fervently pushed back on Paxton's SB 802 on the floor, noting that the bill, which bars abortion unless a woman consults with a state-funded CPC "counselor" and earmarks $7 million for administrative costs, does little to actually provide tangible resources to women, rather it adds another obstacle to access. "Many women will see this bill as a barrier masquerading as assistance," she said.

And Democrat Carol Alvarado of Houston juxtaposed the absurdity of SB 9 by pointing out that abortion doctors would face $100,000 in fines while those who commit sexual assault in Texas face a maximum of $10,000. "Why would we punish a doctor who performs an abortion on a victim of rape or incest more than the actual rapist?" said Alvarado.

Another terrible bill, SB 1173 (by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills) removes the exception to the state's current 20-week abortion ban for severe fetal abnormalities, which would force deliveries that endanger the lives of patients. "This is just another example of cruelty from the Legislature," says Dermish. "I take care of a lot of patients with fetal anomalies who choose to terminate later in their pregnancies, and I see first-hand how they are already burdened by the restrictive timeline the state imposes on them during this heart-wrenching time – this bill would be devastating." Hancock's measure and other restrictions are also included in the omnibus SB 1647 by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock).

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women's health care, abortion rights, reproductive rights, heartbeat bills, Jane's Due Process, judicial bypass, 87th Texas Legislature, Rosann Mariappuram, Fund Texas Choice, Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, Senate Bill 650, SB 650, Donna Campbell, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, Senate Bill 8, SB 8, Bryan Hughes, Texas Senate, Senate Committee on State Affairs, Amna Dermish

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