May 20, 2019

Texas Legislature Avoids Hot-Button Abortion Bills This Session

Reporting Texas

The rotunda inside the Texas Capitol building in Austin, Texas. David Hertle/Unsplash

Restrictive abortion policies, a heated area of debate in the Texas Legislature two years ago, aren’t getting much of a hearing this session.

While others states are passing sweeping anti-abortion legislation – earlier this month Georgia, for example, enacted a fetal heartbeat bill, and the Alabama governor signed into law legislation Wednesday that makes performing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison — the abortion-related legislation that appears to have the best chance of passing in Texas this session is almost symbolic in nature.

A fetal heartbeat bill was filed but never received a hearing. Texas Right to Life, a group that works to pass legislation that restricts access to abortions, said while it commended the intent of the bill, it was not a priority.

Four states so far — Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio — have passed so-called fetal heartbeat bills, which ban abortion at the time a heartbeat can be detected in the womb. This can happen as early as six weeks into the pregnancy, before some women even know they are pregnant.

“Clearly people who are passing bills like that want to see elective abortion ended, and we do too,” said Rebecca Parma, a legislative associate at Texas Right to Life. “We are all working toward the same goal.”

When deciding their priorities for the session, Texas Right to Life considers whether legislation would prevent abortions from occurring, shift the cultural conversation in favor of stopping abortions and work toward undermining Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects a women’s right to choose an abortion.

Fetal heartbeat bills and other restrictive abortion measures are usually challenged in the courts and prohibited from taking effect until the cases are resolved. Parma said Texas Right to Life wants to see how the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh affects the court’s ideological balance.

“We want to send incremental abortion cases to the court to see how they rule on those to get a feeling on how far can we push, how far can we go,” Parma said.

However, some abortion-related legislation is on track to become law this session.

Senate Bill 23, authored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would mandate that doctors care for infants born during abortion procedures. There’s no record of that ever happening in Texas.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said this bill is good legislation for Republicans.

“[SB 23] allows them to demonstrate to pro-life advocates that they’re still working on their behalf, that they’re still fighting the good fight, without alienating really anyone other than diehard Democrats and pro-choice advocates who were never going to vote Republican anyway,” Jones said.

SB 23 has passed out of the Senate and has been referred to a House committee. However, House Bill 16, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, is similar to Kolkhorst’s proposal and has passed both the House and the Senate. Because the Senate made some changes to the bills, it must go back to the House so lawmakers can reconcile the two versions before the legislation heads to the governor’s desk.

Texas Right to Life said while it supports the idea behind SB 23 and HB 16, its priority this session is to pass legislation to stop abortions.

“It’s good policy certainly to strengthen the protections for children born alive after an attempted abortion,” Parma said. “But our focus is on priority bills that would actually stop abortions before they even happen.”

One such bill is Senate Bill 1033 by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.

Texas Right to Life says the bill would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and discriminatory abortions — those preformed based on the race, sex or disability status of the fetus. SB 1033 passed the full Senate and a House committee. The full House has until Tuesday, the deadline for the lower chamber to pass Senate bills, to move the legislation forward.

Jones said more restrictive abortion legislation, such as fetal heartbeat bills and measures that ban abortion even in cases of rape or incest, would be dangerous politically for the Republican party to pass.

“That type legislation gets Republicans in trouble because that’s where you’re alienating more people, you’re alienating a majority of the population,” Jones said.