Texas anti-abortion bills would protect abnormal fetuses, slash Planned Parenthood funding
AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood - possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.
While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.
Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.
“We can’t just rest on our laurels,” said Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the advocacy arm of the organization.
More than 55,000 abortions were performed in Texas in 2015, according to the most recent data available. That’s down from around 77,500 abortions in 2010. One in five abortions are performed within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, the latest data show.
Several thousand people who marched outside the state Capitol last weekend want that number down to zero. Attendees at the Texas Rally for Life stressed that nothing short of a total ban on abortion will do. That group included Freddy Romo, 55, who took a nine-hour bus trip to attend the event from his home outside of Midland in West Texas.
Though two of the most recent abortion restriction laws adopted in Texas are on judicial hold pending legal challenges, Romo says the Legislature can’t back down now.
“I think that those are just tactics of modern-day government,” said Romo, who wore a cross necklace around his neck and scoffed that lawmakers that he says come out in force to such events before elections, but seldom make appearances at other times. “We put things on a back burner, we don’t confront the issues.”
Still, some abortion opponents say it’s too early for an outright ban on abortion - not even as two new justices nominated by President Donald Trump are expected to shift the U.S. Supreme Court further to the right.
“We are not convinced there are enough votes on the Supreme Court at the moment to repeal Roe v. Wade or even scale back Roe v. Wade,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, referring to the landmark ruling that originated in Texas that found women have a constitutional right to the procedure.
He’s urging the Legislature to pass less sweeping bills, such as banning cities, counties and other municipalities from doing business with abortion providers like Planned Parenthood and their affiliates.
Pojman said he is not advising lawmakers to pass a bill to ban abortions of fetuses with diagnosed abnormalities after 20 weeks gestation because he does not believe it could survive a court challenge.
But a competing anti-abortion group is making that bill a priority.
“If we believe in a pro-life movement that all life has an inherent value, then we need to tackle this now in Texas,” said Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life.
Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.
“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”
In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.
But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.
“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.
Democrats, who picked up 12 seats in the House in the November election, say voters don’t want to see lawmakers emphasize abortion policy this year.
“I think the people of Texas sent a signal last year that they’re tired of some of this stuff,” said Rep. Chris Turner, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, about attempts to curtail access to abortion. “I hope that there will be a shift away from those bills.”
Guiterrez, of Planned Parenthood, said she fears a hostile legislative environment. As abortion bills pass through a welcoming committee, she is afraid lawmakers will “have blinders on” instead of listening to testimony from doctors and women who oppose the legislation.
Despite lawmaker’s pledges to focus on issues like schools and property taxes, lawmakers are going to feel pressure “when you’ve got Right to Life down your throat saying this bill needs to move out of committee,” said Gutierrez. “When do we ever take anyone for their word?”