Texas Legislators Double Down, Break Glass Table, In Next Big Abortion Fight

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Eight months after the Supreme Court struck down abortion restrictions in Texas, state legislators appear to be doubling down in a renewed effort to make the procedure difficult, and ultimately impossible, to obtain.

On Wednesday, the Texas Senate Committee on Health and Human Services held a public hearing in Austin on three bills—SB 8, SB 258 and SB 415—all of which were filed by male representatives. Taken together, the three Texas bills hold up a mirror to battles over abortion rights happening in states around the country and are part of a broader trend of politicians favoring fetal dignity and the "life of the unborn" over the rights of a pregnant human woman, says Amanda Allen, senior state legislative counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Similar to anti-abortion legislation that has been introduced in states around the country, the bills aim to enact a number of restrictions, including banning the donation of fetal tissue from an elective abortion and prohibiting D&E, or dilation and extraction, the safest and most common procedure for second trimester abortions. (D&E has been banned in West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and, most recently, Arkansas.) SB 258 would require that fetal tissue from an abortion be buried or cremated. SB 8 intends to ban so-called “partial-birth abortions,” a non-medical term for dilation and evacuation (or D&X), an abortion procedure that is already banned at the federal level, except when the woman’s life is at risk.

One day after the hearing, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reverse a rule introduced by President Barack Obama during his final days in office that blocks states from withholding federal dollars from Planned Parenthood affiliates and other clinics that provide preventative women's healthcare, but also that perform abortions. 

Attempt to 'Shame and Stigma'

One of the approximately 150 people who testified in Texas on Wednesday was Aimee Arrambide, reproductive rights manager and policy specialist at the Public Leadership Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The three proposed bills, she says, will do nothing to improve the already-dire state of women’s health care in Texas. Even though the Supreme Court overturned parts of House Bill 2, the 2013 decision that made Texas health centers that provided abortions meet stringent hospital-like requirements—including minimum sizes for doorways and rooms—, clinics still closed. There are currently 19 clinics for the state’s population of 28 million people.

“I think that people are sometimes under the mistaken impression that after the ruling last summer clinics automatically reopened, but a lot of the smaller clinics closed and staff moved on to other jobs,” says Arrambide.

texas_abortion_0217 Demonstrators celebrate at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after justices struck down a Texas law imposing strict regulations on abortion doctors and facilities, June 27, 2016. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Related: House votes to reverse rule blocking states from defunding Planned Parenthood

Arrambide serves on the board for Fund Texas Choice, an organization that pays for Texan womens’ travel to abortion clinics in and out of the state. She says abortion waiting times for some women have increased tenfold, and some women have waited for so long that they find themselves past the statutory limit of abortions in Texas, forcing them to travel outside the state. Last year Fund Texas Choice, which was formed in response to House Bill 2 in 2013, raised $150,000 for 334 women to travel to their abortion appointments.  

“We have seen the numbers of clients that need our services rise dramatically over the past three years, and they keep rising,” says Arrambide.

Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing was tense, with passions flaring on both sides of the debate. Legislators pointedly asked an abortion provider if she would describe the practice of D&E as "gruesome," while Senator Charles Schwertner, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, slammed his gavel down so hard when trying to silence a supporter of abortion rights that he broke a glass table.

Texas state lawmakers, says Allen, are “tripling down at this point” after the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt ruling in June. The Supreme Court found that the restrictions placed an “impermissible obstacle” on women's’ constitutional right to access abortion.

“This trio of bills in particular is really designed to shame and stigma women seeking abortion care,” says Allen. “The Supreme Court has ruled unequivocally that a fetus is not a person and not subject to constitutional protection. What we’re seeing is states trying to get around the Whole Woman’s Health decision.”

Politics in the Exam Room

Texas is just one state where a raft of anti-abortion bills has been filed this year. Indiana’s “Protection of Life” bill would effectively abolish abortion in the state by repealing all existing statutes that regulate the procedure. Several states want to redefine fetuses as human beings, thus turning abortion providers and pregnant women into murderers under the law. Many state-level bills use non-medical terms, including “partial-birth” and “dismemberment” abortion in their legislative texts.

“We are seeing similarities in the ways the anti-abortion movement is pushing” such terminology, says Allen. “Both terms are not based in any credible medical evidence. These are not medical terms. Both are instances of strategies to use inflammatory and non-medical language to push an extreme anti-abortion agenda.

“It’s very indicative of what happens when politicians who are not doctors legislate in this area,” she goes on to say. “We need to get this political interference outside of the exam room.”

Abortion rights and anti-abortion supporters are now waiting for the three bills to move out of committee. An additional number of bills were introduced in Texas last month, including HB 1049, a near-outright ban on abortion in the state, and HB 948, which would equate abortion with homicide and make a physician and nurses who perform the abortion, as well as the woman who undergoes the procedure, culpable for murder. Advocates say the aim of the deluge of legislation in Texas is clear.

“The state wants to make [abortion] as difficult as possible,” says Allen.

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