Texas House approves new abortion restrictions

State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale votes on an amendment in the Texas House on May 19, 2017. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)
State Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale votes on an amendment in the Texas House on May 19, 2017. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)

AUSTIN (Texas Tribune) — GOP House lawmakers took a sweeping approach to anti-abortion legislation on Friday, preliminarily passing a measure that would ban the most common form of second-trimester procedure and change how health care providers dispose of fetal remains.

Under the broad strokes of Senate Bill 8, abortion providers would have to bury or cremate fetal remains following an elective abortion and they would be banned from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers. The bill also bans “partial-birth abortions,” which are already illegal under federal law.

An amendment added to the bill during House debate would also ban providers from performing “dilation and evacuation” abortions — a common second-trimester procedure where doctors use surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue — unless the fetus is already deceased. Abortion opponents call the procedure “dismemberment abortions.”

House members passed the bill 96-47; the chamber must take a final vote on the measure before it returns to the Senate.

Opponents call “dilation and evacuation” abortions the safest way to perform the procedure on a pregnant woman, and say requiring the fetus to be deceased would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure.

They have also said burying or cremating fetal remains — and taking away a woman’s right to donate fetal tissue to medical research — are additional ways to burden and stigmatize women who choose to have a legal procedure.

They predicted even more litigation.

“Why don’t we just stop passing unconstitutional laws for a change?” asked state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

But Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, the bill’s House sponsor, said the measure would “make sure tissue from aborted babies are not turned into a commodity.” And even though partial-birth abortions are already illegal, she said her measure helps align state and federal statute.

On Friday, some of those same lawmakers used the SB 8 debate to tack on amendments similar to previously filed anti-abortion bills that didn’t get a vote, including the amendments banning “dilation and evacuation” abortions. That amendment passed 92-42.

Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the amendment’s author, told members it was important to have the “dismemberment abortion” ban so fetuses would not be “ripped and torn apart.”

“There are other procedures that can be done,” Klick repeatedly told Democrats that challenged her.

The SB 8 debate comes as legislators head into the final days of the legislative session, which ends May 29. Last week, the House Freedom Caucus — a group of socially conservative members — blocked more than 100 bills from being heard on the traditionally fast-tracked local calendar, in part, they say, because the House hadn’t taken up anti-abortion legislation sooner.

Throughout the debate, House Democrats tried to get their own amendments passed but repeatedly failed. That included measures that would have made exceptions for sexual assault survivors seeking an abortion. They also pointed to how the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the 2013 Legislature’s restrictive anti-abortion bill, House Bill 2.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said in a news release after the bill passed that the legislation is “based on lies and misinformation” about late-term abortions and fetal tissue.

“The sad truth is this bill’s supporters are peddling lies to shame women who seek an abortion and make it harder for them to get access to the reproductive health care they need,” Miller said.

The issue of how to dispose of fetal remains is already tied up in court. The Texas Department of State Health Services was supposed to implement a similar rule in December, but lawyers for the abortion rights group Center for Reproductive Rights won a temporary restraining order to halt its implementation. A federal judge ruled in January that the state could not proceed with the rule, citing its vagueness, undue burden and potential for irreparable harm.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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