Senators meet to consider abortion restrictions

Today’s news from the Associated Press was selected by Media Writing student Stephanie Jones. 

By Chris Tomlinson, Associated Press —

AUSTIN, Texas — Republican and Democratic state senators engaged in an intense debate Thursday over proposed laws to further restrict when, where and how women can get abortions in Texas.

After Gov. Rick Perry called on the special legislative session to consider new abortion laws, Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, laid out an omnibus bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, allowing abortions only in surgical facilities and placing greater restrictions on abortion-inducing medications.

Anti-abortion groups have tremendous influence over conservative Republicans and they have made these bills a priority across the nation. Abortion rights groups complain the new laws are nothing more than additional barriers to women obtaining an abortion and could shut down 90 percent of the abortion clinics in the state.

All of the bills came up in the regular legislative session but never made it to a final vote.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, immediately questioned the legitimacy of the research that suggests a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, which was Hegar’s justification for the ban. He cited a 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that disputes prior research showing that a fetus at 20 weeks is capable of feeling pain, and instead states that pain is not experienced until the third trimester. He challenged supporters to produce a more recent study.

Hegar simply insisted that a “significant amount of evidence” exists, but failed to offer specifics.

Senators Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, joined West in challenging the section of Hegar’s bill that only allowed for exceptions when the woman life is in danger.

Hegar said he was trying to “balance the needs and the interests to prevent fetuses and small children from suffering pain … with trying to make sure there is not any kind of harm to women in this state.”

In addition to Hegar’s omnibus Senate Bill 5, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee considered each measure as separate bills by Hegar, Sen. Dan Patrick and Sen. Bob Deuell.

Patrick told the committee that all of the bills were intended to protect women, not stop abortions. Opponents, though, questioned his intentions.

The requirement that abortion clinics qualify as ambulatory surgical centers would also mandate that doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Critics complain that since many private or religious hospitals won’t grant privileges to doctors who perform abortions, the law would effectively shut down clinics in wide swathes of the state.

Abortion rights advocates also testified that since less than 1 percent of women who undergo abortions suffer complications, establishing higher standards for abortion clinics and requiring stricter rules for pill-induced abortions are unnecessary and motivated by politics.

Dozens of individuals representing only themselves testified both in support and in opposition of the measures. Amanda Wu observed in her testimony opposing the measures that the majority of the members of the committee and the bills’ authors were men.

“The abortion measures proposed are branded as protection for women, for the fetus and for Texas, but we should not be mistaken as to their intentions,” she said, representing herself at the hearing. “These bills are intended to limit women’s access to abortion across Texas.”

In support of the bill, Sylvia Guzman said women should take greater responsibility for their actions.

“The bigger problem with our society is negating the value of human life when it begins at conception,” she told the senators. She called on lawmakers to expand the bills to also restrict the use of the morning after pill, a medication that provides emergency contraception rather than an abortion.

Many of these measures have faced legal challenges in other states, particularly the 20-week ban. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that the state may only ban abortions after 26 weeks.

The committee was expected to vote on the bills Friday.

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