Texas House Passes Near-Total Abortion Ban

Sen. Bryan Hughes in 2017 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The most extreme six-week abortion ban in the country is now one step closer to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk to become law.

In an 81-63 initial vote on Wednesday, May 5, the Republican-dominated Texas House passed Senate Bill 8 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, legislation that not only would enact a near-total ban on abortion statewide without any exception for rape or incest but allow anyone – even those not connected to the patient or those that live out of state – the right to sue an abortion provider. In fact, any person or group that “aids or abets” abortion care could be subject to legal challenges, an unprecedented and chilling provision that could lead to a mountain of frivolous lawsuits.

SB 8, carried on the House floor by Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville (author of House counterpart HB 1515) and misleadingly dubbed a “heartbeat bill” would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. (In reality, that “heartbeat” is merely fetal electrical impulses, not a four-chambered heart, as anti-choice activists would have you believe.) While several other states have passed similar “heartbeat” measures none have yet taken effect – the breathtakingly broad legal standing in the Texas version is the first of its kind in the country.

Amid two hours of debate on the House floor, Democrats challenged SB 8’s vast and unfair legal powers, which could open the floodgates to legal harassment to anyone that supports abortion care, including rape crisis counselors or those who donate to abortion funds and clinics. More than 370 licensed attorneys including Mayor Steve Adler and other local leaders strongly opposed the bill in a letter, calling it unconstitutional and an affront to the civil legal system, the Chronicle reported last week.

Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Ft. Worth, pointed out that those who sue can collect a minimum of $10,000 if they are successful. And those unjustly sued cannot recover legal fees. The bill language is so broad anyone even tangentially related to abortion care – like those who drive a patient to the clinic or offer to cover costs or simply refer a patient to an abortion clinic – can be sued. “It’s a lottery, basically,” said Collier of the hefty recovery sum.

Seeking to allay some concerns, Slawson offered an amendment, accepted by the House, that exempts a rapist or someone that commits incest from suing their victim’s abortion provider. However, Austin Rep. Sheryl Cole pointed out that the bill is still problematic in that it doesn’t necessarily preclude someone close to the rapist (like a friend or relative) from suing.

Democrats also showcased Slawson’s lack of knowledge – and brazen unwillingness to accept medical science – when it comes to basic reproductive health care. Slawson failed to answer questions from Austin Rep. Donna Howard and Rep. Chris Turner, D-Ft. Worth, about the relationship between contraception access and unintended pregnancy; maternal mortality; gestation; whether or not a period indicates a pregnancy; and other basics of reproductive health care. Slawson often declined to respond, deferring to a physician or only replying with “I’m not advised on the matter.” When Howard, a former nurse and current chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, explained to Slawson that major medical groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) oppose the term “heartbeat” for a fetus that early in pregnancy, Slawson said she “didn’t agree” with that. “Well, that’s what the science says,” said an incredulous Howard.

The American Medical Association and more than 200 doctors have come out in opposition to the private cause of action part of SB 8, Democrats on the floor pointed out. Indeed, this week physicians from more than 30 specialties penned an open letter expressing deep concern about the bill and its impact on the health care industry as it would create a “chilling effect” that could prevent doctors from providing information on all pregnancy options to patients out of fear of suits. “SB 8 is clearly designed to invite harassing and frivolous lawsuits against anyone willing to help someone with an unwanted pregnancy and would effectively stop all health care workers from being able to give our patients accurate information about their reproductive health care options,” said Dr. Joe Nelson, a Texas family physician.

The protest from Democrats did little to stop Slawson and her conservative anti-choice colleagues from changing the core of the extremist bill. The House will take a final vote on SB 8 and then send it back to the Senate, which passed the measure in March, to approve changes. It would then be sent to Gov. Abbott’s desk for a signature. Major anti-choice group Texas Right to Life celebrated the passage, calling it “a historic day” for the state of Texas.

“You guys know there have always been abortions and always will be despite the obstructions and self-righteousness of valuing life over what I value which I highly resent,” said a heated Howard on the House floor. “I also value the lives of the women and families who have to make these decisions.”

“The Legislature should not be dictating what we as women do with our own bodies,” she said, recalling the dangerous pre-Roe era. “We do not want to return to a time when women had to hide in the shadows and risk their health and their lives to access abortion care.”