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Debate Opens on Texas’ Latest Anti-Abortion Efforts

Debate Opens on Texas’ Latest Anti-Abortion Efforts
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Illustration by Marini van Smirren

 

Last June, the Supreme Court struck down the two main provisions in Texas’ House Bill 2 abortion law that required abortion centers to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, including having large operating rooms, wide corridors, and doctors with admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.

At the time, the state argued that the bill was intended to protect women’s health.

“HB2 was an effort to improve minimum safety standards and ensure capable care for Texas women,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement. “It’s exceedingly unfortunate that the court has taken the ability to protect women’s health out of the hands of Texas citizens and their duly-elected representatives.”

This time, the argument is not that a new set of anti-abortion measures are about protecting women’s health, but instead “strictly deals with the dignity of the unborn,” according to Republican Sen. Don Huffines.

On Wednesday, the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee will begin hearing three new measures that would toughen regulations on what happens to a fetus both before and after an abortion.

A proposal from Republican state Sen. Charles Perry, known as Senate Bill 415, would mostly ban a commonly used second-trimester procedure known as dilation and evacuation. Similar laws have previously been blocked in Alabama, Oklahoma, Kansas and Louisiana. The terminology used in the bill, including a ban “dismemberment” abortions, does not refer to any phrases used in textbooks to define medical procedures and effectively serves to be inflammatory rather than accurate. The bill also requires that there be no fetal heartbeat before the dilation and evacuation procedure can be performed.

Senate Bill 8 would ban the donation of fetal tissue from an abortion. The bill is the Republican response to the release of tapes that claimed to show Planned Parenthood employees selling fetal tissue for profit, although the anti-abortion activists who shot the heavily-edited video were later indicted by a grand jury and Planned Parenthood was cleared of any wrongdoing. The bill also includes a ban on “partial-birth” abortions, which have actually been federally banned by the U.S. Supreme Court since 2007.

Another measure, Senate Bill 258, would require the require fetal remains from abortions, miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies to be buried or cremated. While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the change, the bill is on hold pending a federal trial as it was challenged by two groups who state that the law serves no medical purpose.

Abortion providers in Texas sued the state over the rule last year, arguing that it imposes a religious ritual on women, does not benefit public health and could lead clinics to close as few vendors are willing to perform cremation and burial services for tissue from abortions. Just last month, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks blocked Texas from enforcing the measure, citing that the rules are “likely unconstitutionally vague and impose an undue burden on the right to an abortion.”

In spite of the injunction, Texas Republicans continue to push the measure forward.

“No longer content with merely ending the life of the unborn, the radical left now objects to even the humane treatment of fetal remains,”said Attorney General Ken Paxton in a prepared statement. “Texas stands committed to honoring the dignity of the unborn and my office is proud to continue fighting for these new rules.”

Lawyers for the state defended the proposed burial rules in court last month, saying they ensure that fetal remains are treated with dignity, the same reason given by Abbott in supporting the measure.

Sparks wrote that by “seeking to respect life and the dignity of the unborn regardless of gestational age,” the state establishes that the beginning of human life is at conception, potentially undermining the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Sparks also said that the measure was politically motivated and does not “have any benefit to health at all.” Abortion providers told Sparks that they know of only one vendor in the state willing to handle the cremation and burial of the tissue, not to mention that the cost of such a rule could equate to $500 to $700, which may or may not fall on the woman receiving the abortion.

The first part of the public hearing before the Senate committee, composed of six Republicans and three Democrats, included questions from senators — mostly from Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin — and invited witness testimonies. The Senate committee begins public testimony on Wednesday with a time limit of two minutes per witness.