Slate of Texas legislation limiting abortion, including so-called 'heartbeat bill,' heads to Senate

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Protesters hold signs at a pro-Planned Parenthood rally in San Antonio. - MICHAEL BARAJAS
  • Michael Barajas
  • Protesters hold signs at a pro-Planned Parenthood rally in San Antonio.
Following through on a promise to prioritize anti-abortion legislation, a panel of Texas senators approved a slate of abortion restrictions Tuesday and sent them to the full chamber for consideration.

Among those seven pieces of legislation was Senate Bill 8, which would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which is before many women know they are pregnant. The bill, one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, has an exception for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.

Another Patrick priority is Senate Bill 9, which would bar nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision or otherwise altered abortion laws. Other proposals would bar later-term abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities and could force people to carry ill-fated or unviable pregnancies to term, according to experts and advocates.

Women would receive information about “perinatal palliative care,” or support services for people who want to follow through with such pregnancies, according to Senate Bill 1173.

The Senate State Affairs Committee overwhelmingly approved the bills after a hearing on the measures ended after midnight Tuesday. The committee allowed members of the public to give testimony in-person starting around 6 p.m. Monday, and those who attended were overwhelmingly in favor of the measures or felt they did not go far enough. The committee, made up of six Republicans and three Democrats, one of whom authored several of the abortion bills, voted 7-2 in favor of six of the measures. They voted 8-1 in favor of Senate Bill 802, which would require that resources be offered to someone seeking an abortion.

Virtual testimony was not heard. Members of some abortion rights groups posted their comments on social media, with one noting the ongoing pandemic and saying there was “barely a mask in sight” at Monday’s hearing.

Most abortions in Texas are banned after 20 weeks, and women seeking an abortion must get a sonogram at least 24 hours before the procedure. Their doctor must describe the sonogram, make audible any heartbeat and provide information that critics say is misleading.

The legislative session that began in January has been driven by the coronavirus pandemic and the response to last month’s power crisis. But anti-abortion lawmakers, buoyed in part by the new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, have pushed to reclaim Texas’ role as the vanguard among states restricting access to abortion.

Bills that would limit access to abortion dominated the committee hearing Monday, including one measure with a “legal strategy that moves us toward overturning” the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, said John Seago, with the Texas Right to Life group.

“Texas is uniquely positioned to lead, being in the [conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction], having the attorney general's office that we do and having the Supreme Court that we do,” he said.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, said the measures have a goal of banning abortion in Texas, and are extreme and “out of touch with what most Texans believe.”

“The Senate State Affairs Committee should stop this crusade against fundamental health care and shift their focus from banning abortion to keeping the lights on for every Texan and pandemic relief,” she said.

Public opinion about the availability of abortion has scarcely changed in Texas over the last several years, according to a 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

Voters’ opinions about state laws, however, have changed some. Overall, 32% said the laws should be stricter, down from 41% in the Feb. 2019 UT/TT Poll. And the number who said the laws on abortion should be less strict rose to 37% from 32% two years ago.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the lead author of SB 8 and the chair of the State Affairs Committee, said “we as a state, as a society, as a government have a duty, the highest duty, to protect an innocent human life.” Almost all the Republicans in the Senate signed on as authors to the measure, which has been dubbed the “heartbeat bill.”

SB 802, filed by state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, would require a contractor to offer counseling and other resources to a person seeking an abortion. That person would have to receive an identifying number — that would be kept in a state database to confirm she received the offer — before the procedure was performed, according to a bill draft.

Opponents of the bill said it would put an unnecessary hurdle in the way of someone trying to get an abortion and require them to get potentially unwanted counseling from contractors trying to dissuade them from going through with the procedure.

The resources would be offered by contractors in the state’s pro-childbirth Alternatives to Abortion program and would connect women to public resources like Medicaid, child care or housing, according to the bill draft and comments at the hearing.

Another bill passed by the committee — and targeted at the city of Austin — would bar local governments from paying to support someone making the sometimes multi-day journey to get an abortion. That would include appropriating money to pay for costs like child-care or transportation.

Senate Bill 394, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., would prohibit pill-induced abortions after seven weeks. Food and Drug Administration guidelines approve abortion pills’ use to 10 weeks. Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat, typically supports limits on abortions and joined Republicans as an author on SB 8.

And Senate Bill 1647, also approved, is an omnibus piece of legislation that includes provisions in other bills.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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