AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Clad in red robes and white bonnets, reproductive rights activists stood in the rotunda of the Texas Capitol building Tuesday shouting one word over and over: “Shame!”
They were dressed as characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which depicts a totalitarian theocracy where women are held as reproductive slaves, with no control over their own bodies.
They protesters were reacting to a flurry of restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the past few days.
On Saturday, the Texas House passed an omnibus anti-abortion bill that would require abortion providers to bury or cremate fetal tissue, bans the safest type of abortion women can undergo during the second trimester of a pregnancy, and prohibits donation of fetal tissue from abortion for medical research.
On Monday, the Senate revived a measure that would require women to buy separate insurance plans to cover elective abortions, attaching it as an amendment to a House bill on health data.
On Tuesday, the Senate revived another bill, which prohibits parents from seeking damages for “wrongful birth” medical malpractice claims if they were not informed of genetic or congenital abnormalities in the fetus. Opponents have said it would allow doctors to lie to their patients in an attempt to prevent abortions.
Abortion even made it into debate on an animal cruelty bill Tuesday, when Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, derailed a bill which would have enhanced the criminal penalties for torturing and killing pets in order to make a point about abortion regulations. He said he does not believe that the punishment for animal cruelty should be harsher than the punishment for doctors who perform late-term abortions.
“I cannot, will not and shall not allow the Texas House to place a higher value to a pet over the life of a human being,” Tinderholt said during the debate.
Tinderholt’s own anti-abortion bill, which would have charged any woman who had an abortion with murder, is one of the few anti-abortion bills proposed this session that did not receive so much as a committee hearing.
Tinderholt said his bill would force women to be more personally responsible for sex.
Legal experts were quick to dismiss Tinderholt’s proposal as unconstitutional, but many activists and Democratic lawmakers believe that most of the anti-abortion bills passed this session are unconstitutional as well, and likely to be struck down in the courts, as similar laws have been in the past.
The U.S. United States Supreme Court struck down Texas House Bill 2 last year, which required that abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, and required the clinics to meet the same minimum standards as ambulatory surgical centers.
In that case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the court ruled that restrictions on abortion cannot unduly burden a woman without providing a legitimate medical benefit.
Apparently anticipating similar legal challenges to Senate Bill 8, the omnibus abortion bill that passed Saturday, the House sponsor, Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, proposed an amendment to make each provision in the bill severable, so that if one was found to be unconstitutional, the rest could remain unaffected.
“It seems that with this amendment there is a tacit admission that what we are doing here is likely to be struck down by the courts once again, just as it was last year by the United States Supreme Court,” Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said during the debate on the bill Friday.
One provision of SB 8 codifies into law regulations adopted by the Texas Department of State Health Services relating to disposition of fetal remains.
The department’s requirement that tissue from abortions, miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies be buried or cremated already has been challenged in court. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in February stopped the state from enforcing the fetal burial rules, saying they “likely are unconstitutionally vague and impose an undue burden on the right to abortion.”
Another provision in SB 8, added as an amendment in the House Friday, bans the dilation and evacuation procedure that is the safest and most common procedure used for abortions after 13 weeks of pregnancy.
Through tears, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, gave an impassioned speech against this amendment.
Howard, who used to work as a critical care nurse, said the ban on a medically proven, safe abortion procedure was “political interference in medicine at its worst.”
“With the highest maternal mortality rate in the country, Texas risks raising these numbers with the banning of the safest abortion procedure for most patients,” Howard said.
She said the Legislature was making a mistake in attempting to return to the days before Roe v. Wade, because restrictions on abortions don’t stop abortions, but only make them unsafe. She said abortion should be legal and safe to prevent the unnecessary deaths of pregnant women.
“We can sit here self-righteously and decide that we always know best for every person, but we do not,” Howard said. “When a woman becomes pregnant, she loses a part of herself to someone else. Most of us want that because it’s beautiful, but we want women who are in desperate situations to be able to make the choice that’s best for their own bodies and their own families and to do it in a safe way.”
Howard said that if her colleagues were truly concerned about preventing abortions, they would work with her to ensure that contraceptives are accessible to those who need them.
“There is no reason to come here session after session and make it more and more difficult and drive women back into the shadows of illegal abortion, because that is exactly what this will do,” Howard said. “They will not stop having them.”
Some provisions in SB 8 are redundant, as federal law already bans the sale of fetal tissue for profit, and prohibits so-called “partial-birth” abortions.
After six hours of debate Friday evening, the bill passed by 93-45 vote on Saturday. It will return to the Senate for final approval before heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for signature.
On Monday, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, revived his bill that would prohibit abortion coverage under private insurance and Affordable Care Act primary care plans. The bill has passed the Senate, but was never taken up by the House.
Taylor attached the measure as an amendment to HB 3124, an unrelated bill dealing with distribution of cost comparison data to physicians.
Taylor’s amendment would require women to purchase separate insurance plans to receive coverage for elective abortions.
The bill is up for a final vote in the Senate Wednesday.
On Tuesday, another amendment to a different bill revived an otherwise dead-in-the-House abortion bill.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, added his measure that would prohibit “wrongful birth” medical malpractice claims to HB 2962, which relates to stricter reporting requirements for abortion complication.
Texas and 27 other states allow parents to sue doctors for wrongful birth if they do not provide them with information that allows them to make an informed decision about whether to have a child. Opponents of the bill told a Senate committee in March that it would allow doctors to “manipulate the family by lying” to them, and impose a doctor’s religious belief upon them.
HB 2962 would require hospitals, community health centers, birthing centers and other clinics that perform abortions to release more detailed data on complications associated with the procedure. The clinics would be fined $500 if found to be in violation of the reporting requirements, and the state could revoke a facility’s license upon the third violation.
The Senate preliminarily approved that bill Tuesday by a 20-11 vote.