Three Texas abortion bills pass committees, gaining momentum in Senate

Texas Tribune News

Anti-abortion advocates at the Rally for Life march in Austin on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. 
Anti-abortion advocates at the Rally for Life march in Austin on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. 
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

A Senate panel on Wednesday approved the Texas Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, one of three anti-abortion bills that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has listed among his priorities. All three have been approved by committees and sent to the full Senate.

The infant protection bill was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with a 6 to 2 vote. Senate Bill 23, filed by committee chair Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, gives teeth to an already existing statute that grants legal protections to children born after a failed abortion attempt. Doctors who fail to provide appropriate medical treatment would be charged with a third-degree felony and have to pay a fine of at least $100,000.

The bill is part of a national Republican response to abortion advocates’ efforts to roll back regulations on late-term abortions in states like New York and Virginia.

The U.S. Senate rejected a national version of SB 23 last month, which prompted the state-level response in Texas.

“Where Washington D.C. has been unclear, we’re going to be very clear. Texans stand united for life,” Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham, said in a statement.

Legislators and advocates who support abortion rights, however, say that the practice is very rare and unfairly criminalizes doctors. Texas reported zero live births resulting from an abortion between 2013 and 2016 — all the years that the Department of State Health Services started collecting the data.

Meanwhile, another of Patrick’s priority bills, Senate Bill 22, would prohibit state and local government from funding abortion providers.

The bill is the latest in a series of state decisions to slash government funding for abortion providers in Texas. In 2011, the Legislature cut the state’s family planning budget by two-thirds in an effort to limit funding for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. In late 2016, the state kicked Planned Parenthood out of the state’s Medicaid program and cut off $3.1 million in funding — and a federal appeals court upheld that decision in January.

These efforts, however, don’t affect funding at the local level—which SB 22 seeks to change.

Anti-abortion legislators singled out the Planned Parenthood’s downtown Austin clinic, which the city leases to the organization at a very low rate – a relationship that may be severed if SB 22 becomes law.

Nicole Hudgens, the senior policy analyst for Texas Values, criticized the “sweetheart rent deal” as unfair to local residents in the East Austin area, who have seen skyrocketing rental prices with increased gentrification.

Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, called the bill an “attack on local control.”

Gutierrez also worried that the language of SB 22, which would limit “transactions” between government and abortion providers, is too broad.

“When they talk about governmental transactions, that’s what makes it confusing or vague…what exactly does this mean?” said Yvonne Gutierrez, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “I could name dozens of instances across the state where we partner with local city and county government in order to provide that care and information.”

The Alternatives to Abortion Information Act, Senate Bill 24 proposed by Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville, would clarify an existing statute that requires a patient to receive certain information before getting an abortion, including a list of agencies that offer alternatives to abortion.

The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously approved the bill on Monday.

SB 24 states that a physician must hand the patient a hard copy of the materials – an important clarification, according to Joe Pojman, the executive director for the Texas Alliance for Life. Current law says the information must be provided in a conversation or online.

Gutierrez said that even in this session where legislative leaders have prioritized “bread-and-butter” topics like school finance and property tax reform, legislators are “more aggressive than ever” on the issue of abortion.

Other anti-abortion bills were filed this session but have not received hearings, like the controversial House Bill 1500. The so-called “heartbeat bill,” which would ban abortions once the fetus’ heartbeat can be detected, has gained traction across in the nation — and a version was recently passed by the Mississippi legislature.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.