by Mary Tuma
As the Current reported earlier, conservative Gov. Rick Perry placed abortion regulations on the special session agenda. While the anti-abortion bills failed to gain enough traction to find their way to either the House or Senate floor for debate during regular session, Perry decided to place them on a call traditionally reserved for “crisis” legislation, granting the failed legislation priority.
The omnibus Senate Bill 5, championed by Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) rolls three anti-choice bills into one. Under the legislation, doctors must have admitting privileges at a hospital no further than 30 miles where a patient’s abortion is performed, women are forced to follow outdated FDA guidelines when taking abortion-inducing drugs and abortion facilities are required to comply with the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). (It previously included a bill that would ban abortion 20-weeks post-fertilization, but Hegar nixed that part right before the debate, probably realizing he’d have a better shot at passing the all-in-one monstrosity without it. The move prompted a noticeably livid Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) to charge Hegar with “compromising” his views for “political expediency.”)
Pro-choice advocates dress up as 1960's "Mad Men" women to protest against being taken back to the past with anti-abortion laws. Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
The limited time span– special session only lasts for 30 days– and the suspension of normal operating procedures, like a key two-thirds rule that granted blocking power to Democrats, helps fast track the bill– but not without a fight, as we saw Tuesday evening.
Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte of San Antonio tirelessly questioned Hegar’s method and reasoning for backing a bill that mandates women take abortion drugs in an archaic manner not supported by major health organizations, like the CDC, American Medical Association and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and that increases side effects, cost and decreases safety.
“Why would we endanger a woman with three times the dose of a drug when that’s not the way it’s currently used?” said van de Putte, who is a pharmacist by day. “Why would you put something in this bill that makes it more toxic for women?”
“If it’s really about women's health, why wouldn't we use the best practices?,” she pressed.
Hegar, a rice farmer from Katy, argued the registered physician, saying that women would be safest under the FDA protocol, a regimen adopted 13 years ago and at this point, is obsolete as safe, less complicated off-label use has become the norm among physicians. While he shot down an amendment from van de Putte and every other Democrat, for that matter, Hegar eventually accepted an amendment by Republican colleague Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) that okays the evidence-based way of administering the drug.
Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) noted that under the bill all abortion centers in his district, with the exception of a San Antonio clinic in Bexar County, would automatically close. Due to the high costs of building and structural changes to bring abortion facilities to the same standards as ASCs– which many see as unnecessary and overly burdensome– the majority of clinics in the state would shut down. Only a total of five centers in Houston (two), Dallas, Austin and San Antonio would remain open.
Uresti’s office did their homework, calculating the long travel times and far distances women, especially rural residents, would be faced with if the bill turns into law.
For instance, a woman living in Ozona would have to travel three hours and about 205 miles to San Antonio to receive services; in Sanderson, patients would trek four and half hours and some 272 miles; in Eagle Pass women would drive two hours and 143 miles and in Carrizo Springs abortion-seeking women would travel two hours and 116 miles. Uresti said that the roughly 150,000 women in his district would lose this service in their county.
“How does this address the issue of making or raising the standard of care or make it better for women?” said Uresti.
It really doesn't at all, as founder of Whole Woman’s Health, Amy Hagstrom Miller, pointed out during a Senate hearing earlier this month. Miller oversees five reproductive health clinics, one of which is an ASC in San Antonio. She assured Senate members the quality and safety are no different between the two clinics– but there is a sizable discrepancy in cost. To maintain her San Antonio center, Miller’s organization spends $40,000 a month on operating expenditures.
Mandating ASC standards for abortion centers is unnecessary, said Miller, as abortion is a non-surgical procedure that doesn’t necessitate the same medical requirements —the real goal of the measure is to shut down abortion clinics, she said. Despite this, Hegar continued to argue the measures would increase the standard of care and women's safety.
But as we witnessed many times over the heated hearing, Hegar failed to bring any substantive, hard data to the table to defend his ostensible compassion for women’s health. In a stunning display of sheer opinion in the face of fact, Rep. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) countered the intention of Hegar’s legislation with statistics, figures and medical literature. When asked to similarly produce any “empirical evidence” to back up his claims, Hegar simply referenced anecdotal conversations with constituents.
“This isn't really about making women safe. It’s about political primaries and making sure you’re feeding red meat to the people who will be voting in those primaries,” concluded Davis.
And so, with no empirical data to defend legislation that makes abortion access largely out of reach for Texas women, Hegar’s bill now moves to the Republican dominated House for a committee hearing, scheduled to take place Thursday.
On second thought, that does sound like a crisis.