Texas Senators Kick Off Arguments Over Three Proposed Abortion Laws

Protestors packed the state Capitol to protest abortion laws in 2013.
Protestors packed the state Capitol to protest abortion laws in 2013. Blackbird Film Co./Flickr
Surprise, y'all: Fights over abortion laws in Texas are ramping back up again.

The Senate Committee of Health and Human Services on Wednesday held a day-long public hearing on three abortion laws Republican senators have proposed this session. They included SB258, which would require the burial or cremation of aborted fetuses of any gestational period; SB415, which would outlaw what anti-abortion activists call "dismemberment abortions"; and SB8, which would ban partial-birth abortions and the sale or donation of fetal tissue.

The day started with the fetal remains burial and cremation bill, which is really not that different from a state Health and Human Services regulation currently being challenged in federal court. (Apparently, that doesn't matter to Senator Don Huffines, who authored it.) Huffines's bill would allow women to choose how the fetuses are disposed of, though would require them to foot the bill if they prefer to make the arrangements over the abortion provider, unless they are indigent.

Among the most interesting exchanges was between Huffines and Senator Kirk Watson, who posed the possibility that some women may object to having the aborted tissue buried or cremated due to personal beliefs, which Watson said would violate the Fourteenth Amendment. He asked Huffines, "Do you believe an individual's personal liberty and autonomy should be protected under the Fourteenth Amendment?"

"We're gonna disagree on a few things," Huffines responded, prompting Watson to press Huffines further: "So you don't believe that a woman's personal liberty and autonomy under the Fourteenth Amendment should be protected?"

"Maybe not," Huffines responded. (It is likely he was avoiding saying he believed in this constitutional protection because it was used in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.)

Watson was also concerned that the bill would lead to "mass graves" of aborted fetuses, and wondered how "dignified" this really was. "I don't think it's a mass grave. I think it's a common grave," Huffines thankfully clarified.

After lunch, senators returned to hear hours of public testimony on all three bills. Anti-abortion Texans supported the bills — yet still chastised the Republicans in the room for not working hard enough to try to outlaw abortion entirely, saying these bills still resulted in killing the unborn, occasionally likening abortion to the Holocaust. Various medical professionals, civil rights attorneys and orange-shirt-wearing pro-choicers called out Republicans for yet again seeking to restrict women's access to abortion and pass measures that do nothing to ensure the safety of women during procedures.

While Republican lawmakers and anti-abortion activists described "dismemberment" abortions in the most sensational and graphic of terms (look no further than the first paragraph of the bill, authored by Senator Charles Perry), other experts said the proper medical term is "dilation and evacuation" procedure, the most common procedure performed in the second trimester. Without this method available, advocates were concerned this would lead to less safe means to perform abortions after 12 weeks.

"As the Supreme Court affirmed in Whole Woman's Health, it's unconstitutional for Texas lawmakers, no matter their intent, to put a substantial obstacle in the way of a woman seeking an abortion," said Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. "SB415 does just that. It bans the safest and most common method of performing a second trimester abortion, which is typically performed without fetal demise taking place at the beginning."

Notably, even the anti-abortion organization Texas Alliance for Life came out against the bill, believing that it would not stand up in federal courts, given it hasn't stood up in any federal court in which it has been challenged. (The group's executive director, Joe Pojman, testified in support of the bill banning partial-birth abortions and the sale or donation of fetal tissue.)

"I just don't believe we should be reckless," Pojman said of SB415. "There's a couple provisions in the House asking for complete bans on abortions. We cannot recommend that. That's gonna fail. We know that's gonna fail. I don't have to have a crystal ball to know that. And I think banning abortions in the second trimester, either on its face or de facto, is just not gonna win the votes with who we have on the Supreme Court. That's our position."

Senator Perry shot back that saying it was "short-sighted" for Pojman to believe he had the "wisdom to predict judicial outcome," and argued that he's not "banning" second trimester abortions with his bill. Yet Pojman interupted him, saying, "On its face your'e not, but de facto, it will."

"It's not easy to take that position," he said. "But I will quote Sir Thomas More: 'I am the king's good servant, but God's first.' We must do things that will work."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn