Texas Republicans Struggle to Explain Their Own Anti-Abortion Bills

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Texas women protesting anti-abortion bills in 2015. - MIRSASHA VIA FLICKR.COM
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  • Texas women protesting anti-abortion bills in 2015.

A Wednesday hearing before the Texas Senate Committee on Health and Human Services revealed just how little the Republican authors of three major anti-abortion bills actually know about their proposed legislation — or the people who'd be most affected by their bills.

In their introductions, Senators Charles Schwertner, Charles Perry, and Don Huffines all used familiar but non-scientific jargon to inaccurately describe how an abortion works. Each man stressed that their bills had nothing to do with the health and safety of a pregnant woman, only the respect for the unborn fetus.

The senators provided little hard data on why their bill would be beneficial to the public, some relying on faulty science (like that 16-week-old fetuses can feel pain) or discredited, politically-charged investigations to form their arguments.

But committee member Sen. Kirk Watson did not let their restrictive bills slide by unquestioned. The Democratic senator single-handedly unravelled each senator's arguments, shining a light on each bill's clear (and dangerous) loopholes — leaving most senators scrambling for rebuttals.

These bills, meant to block women from a safe abortion, force women to let the Catholic Church to bury the remains of their abortion and block scientists from receiving fetal tissue for vital medical research, have been called deliberately confusing by opponents. This tactic, used by lawmakers across the aisle, can allow for broader interpretation of the bill further down the road — giving way to unexpected consequences. To give each bill (and its author's arguments) introduced Wednesday the focus they deserve, we've broken them into stand-alone segments:

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Senate Bill 8 Limiting fetal tissue donation

Sen. Schwertner's SB 8 would make it impossible for women who have abortions for non-life threatening reasons to donate any of the resulting fetal tissue to scientific research. This is based solely on Schwertner's unfounded theory that people in Texas are illegally selling fetal tissue.

This theory is based on his (and many other GOP lawmakers') trust in a series of viral videos taken by anti-abortion activists in 2015, which featured conversations with Planned Parenthood doctors edited to make viewers believe the clinic had been profiting off fetal tissue sales. Doctors were, instead, explaining the very much legal reimbursement fees they received for shipping and storing the tissue to science labs.

Months after these videos were released, every state that investigated these claims (a total of 12) cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. In Texas, the state's investigation (which cost taxpayers $47,000) also found Planned Parenthood not guilty, and a Houston grand jury instead indicted the videos' creators for using fake IDs to access the doctors they filmed.

Asked repeatedly for evidence Wednesday that Texans were actually profiting off fetal tissue sales, Sen. Schwertner kept pointing to these videos.

"You can mention the videos, but they have been discredited," Sen. Watson told Schwerner. "Other than your interpretation of those videos, do you have any evidence that this bill will positively impact women's health?"

He didn't.

Schwertner did clarify, however, that women who get an abortion after being raped are allowed to donate their fetal tissue to law enforcement as evidence, and that women who end a pregnancy because their fetus has a fatal, genetic abnormality are allowed to let doctors examine the aborted fetus to diagnose what went wrong. But none of these clarifications exist in his bill's text, leading Watson to push Schwertner to include a clearer definition of "donation."

Without one, he said, "I worry about the harassment of women that will result from your bill."

At the root of this issue is the importance of fetal tissue research, something scientists rely on to better understand (and ultimately cure) a wealth of genetic diseases. Schwertner's bill would only allow tissue donations from the fraction of Texas women who have abortions because their life depends on it — not those who independently decide to have an abortion.

For Schwertner, it appears chasing a wildly discredited rumor is more important than advancing scientific research.

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Senate Bill 415 — Banning second-trimester abortions

Despite Sen. Perry claiming otherwise, this bill directly undermines federal law. SB 415 would ban doctors from performing the safest abortion procedure on women who are at least in their 16th week of pregnancy (also called their second trimester).

His reasoning? He doesn't like the way the highly technical procedure sounds.

The procedure, he explained Wednesday, involves doctors "ripping babies apart limb by limb." This is a false (and wildly non-medical) depiction. The majority of second trimester abortions use a suction to remove the fetus.

Second trimester abortions are legal by federal law. Perry's bill, however, would make them illegal unless they're done in a way he's more comfortable with. That means if it passes, Perry confirmed Wednesday, this bill would be the first time a doctor could be charged with homicide for performing an abortion that would otherwise be legal under federal law and court precedence.

Perry said this bill wouldn't outlaw second-trimester abortions, just the most common procedure used to perform these abortions. "There are alternatives," he insisted.

These alternative options, however, are all far less safe and far more costly than the surgical abortions he's irked by. But, to Perry, "the health of the woman is not the target of SB 415."

To be clear: Only ten percent of all women who obtain abortions in the U.S. wait until their second trimester to obtain one. Most would prefer the far more common earlier option. Multiple studies have found that the people who end up needing a later abortion are often low-income women of color living in rural areas — women who need time to save up gas and hotel money to reach a distant abortion clinic. On top of this economic barrier, pregnant women must wait until their second trimester until a doctor can tell if their fetus has any fatal abnormalities (that would likely result in a stillbirth). Meaning these abortions are often performed for women who want a child, but don't want to carry a dead or dying fetus to term.

In no way is a second-term abortion a preferred option. But, at least for now, it's being conducted in the safest possible way. Unless Perry gets his way.

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Senate Bill 258 — Required fetal burial

Sen. Huffines appears to know as much about his so-called "fetal burial bill" as the Texas Attorney General's office — the team whose attempt to implement an identical state "rule" was put on indefinite hold by a federal judge in January. 

Like the rule, originally introduced by Gov. Greg Abbott, Huffines' bill would mandate that the remains from any abortion or miscarriage procedures that take place in medical facilities are cremated and buried — instead of being disposed sanitarily, like every other type of medical waste. The vast majority of the abortion "remains" Huffines wants to bury are as big as a fingernail (many clinics have said the amount of energy required to incinerate this amount of tissue would be a costly, energy-draining waste).

In his Wednesday remarks, Huffines said he penned this bill to respect the life on an "unborn child." It appears, however, that Huffines has spent little time focusing on the bill's actual logistics.

Who would pay for the cremation and burial? The senator is counting on generous nonprofit organizations to "pop up" and volunteer to cover the costs once the bill becomes law. At the moment, he said he only knows of one provider, Catholic Charities, that's willing to help. Asked by Sen. Watson how this organization will cover costs, he answered: "I'm sure they can find the funding the same way they find any fund."

Huffines said that regardless of a women's religion or preference, they would be required to hand over their abortion remains to these Catholic volunteers, who will go on to perform the Catholic burial rites on the aborted fetuses.

"Few societies treat the unborn without dignity," Huffines explained. "Atheists could agree the unborn need to be treated in a respectful manner."

He told the committee his bill doesn't require burial volunteers to have any official license to bury human remains, despite the fact all other people who bury the dead are required to have one. He's unsure if these remains will be buried in a mass grave or how long clinics can keep the tissue before it's cremated. The one thing he did know was how to paint a gory picture of how medical waste is disposed (often in landfills).

"Let me bring you back to how medical waste is disposed," Huffines said at one point, interrupting Watson's concerned questions about who pays for this burial.

"No, that's not the point," Watson replied.

The climax of Watson's questioning came when he questioned Huffines' political beliefs, asking the senator: "Do you agree with me in believing a person's liberty and autonomy should be protected by law?"

Huffines, who has historically preferred government interfere as little as possible in the public's life (and who, according to his website "has always had a fervent passion for liberty"), paused, nervously.

"Well," he answered. "That's up to interpretation."




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