AUSTIN, Texas — Hoping to continue building momentum in a Republican-run state, abortion opponents are heading into the 2013 legislative session with another ambitious wish list, including a measure that would ban the procedure beginning in the 20th week of pregnancy.
That bill, which is still being written, would declare that a fetus can feel pain in the 20th week, an assertion many abortion rights supporters dispute.
Other legislation — some filed, most still in the planning stages — would further regulate the use of abortion-inducing drugs, seek to cut off Planned Parenthood from any remaining Medicaid money and set up a system of stricter state inspections and audits of abortion clinics.
“We’re looking at a big pro-life majority in the House and in the Senate, so we ought to expect some big pro-life accomplishments,” said state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, a leading abortion opponent in the Legislature who is campaigning to replace Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, as leader of the House.
“I think the people back home are sending a message by continuing to send strong pro-life majorities to the Legislature, and that’s what emboldens us,” Hughes said.
The basic right to an abortion, set out in a 1973 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, still stands, leaving opponents to chip away at the legal edges in hopes of limiting access to the procedure.
During the 2011 legislative session, much of that work was focused on a bill requiring women to receive a sonogram and listen to a doctor describe what it reveals about the fetus at least 24 hours before an abortion. Supporters, including Gov. Rick Perry, said they hoped the requirement would prompt women to reconsider the procedure.
Abortion opponents also cut millions of dollars in state funding for Planned Parenthood, largely by cutting family planning programs by two-thirds and by reinforcing a move to exclude the organization from the Women’s Health Program, which provides health and contraceptive care to low-income women. Legislators also approved a “Choose Life” specialty license plate, with proceeds to go toward adoption programs.
The sonogram and license plate bills passed after multiple failed attempts in previous sessions, while the Women’s Health Program exclusion of Planned Parenthood is still being litigated in a state appeals court.
Perry gave the sonogram bill a large boost in 2011 by declaring it an emergency measure, allowing legislators to begin working on it weeks earlier than regular-order legislation.
It is too early to determine what bills will be fast-tracked in the session that begins Jan. 8, but the governor will continue working “diligently to protect unborn life in Texas,” Perry spokesman Josh Havens said last week.
The marquee abortion bill for the 2013 session could be one that has yet to be filed — the “Preborn Pain Act,” which will seek to ban abortions in Texas starting with the 20th week of gestation.
Texas law currently bans abortion in the third trimester of pregnancy, which generally begins around the 28th week, except when the woman’s physical or mental health is at risk or the fetus has a “severe and irreversible abnormality,” according to the state health department.
Abortion opponents argue that an emerging consensus among medical experts indicates that a fetus can feel pain in the 20th week, providing an important “state interest” required by the U.S. Supreme Court for laws that limit access to abortion.
“The state has an interest in protecting the life of a pre-born infant who feels pain,” said Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, the driving force behind the proposed bill. “The state wants to protect life at the point at which a pre-born child can feel pain.”
Graham said the Texas bill — which will be patterned on laws in seven other states, including Nebraska — will highlight peer-reviewed studies on fetal pain while also serving to point out the “barbarism” of abortion, particularly in procedures involving well-developed fetuses.
Abortion rights supporters argue that long-established studies show that a fetus cannot feel pain until the 24th to 30th week of pregnancy, if not later, and say fetal-pain laws continue a trend toward politicizing women’s health care choices for little impact.
Nationwide, only 1.3 percent of abortions were performed after 20 weeks of gestation in 2009, the latest figures available, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most abortions, 92 percent, were performed at less than 13 weeks of gestation, the agency reported.
Another bill, filed last month by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, would increase regulations on dispensing abortion-causing drugs such as RU-486, a nonsurgical abortion method. Under the bill, a dispensing physician would have to meet with the woman first, schedule a follow-up visit within 14 days and contract with a second doctor who would treat any complications arising from the drugs.
Patrick’s bill was created with input from Texas Alliance for Life, an Austin-based group that opposes abortion.
Joe Pojman, executive director of the alliance, said other legislative priorities for his organization will include an effort to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for about $2 million a year in Medicaid payments for counseling and birth control.
The proposal, Pojman said, would complete last session’s efforts to starve Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading provider of abortions, of government funding — including $13 million a year if the courts let Texas exclude the organization from the Women’s Health Program.
Sarah Wheat with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas said she couldn’t comment on specific legislation until her organization begins analyzing bills next month. But Wheat said she wasn’t surprised that abortion rights and her organization continue to be targeted by the Legislature’s Republican majority.
“We’ve seen politicians more intimately involved in women’s medical decisions, and how health care is provided, than ever,” Wheat said. “The Legislature basically shredded the safety net for women last session. Every community in Texas has been touched, and we’ve seen heartbreaking results, including women having fewer options for cancer screening and birth control.”MORE IN Wire News
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