House Delays Abortion Sonogram Debate

Rep. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) holds a sonogram device on the House floor during debate on HB15 March 2, 2011
Rep. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) holds a sonogram device on the House floor during debate on HB15 March 2, 2011

House lawmakers today launched into debate over their version of an abortion sonogram bill, one that is more stringent than the measure that passed the Senate last month. But after hours of delays over a rules technicality, lawmakers voted to send the bill back to committee, where it was promptly voted out — and it will likely hit the House floor tomorrow. 

HB 15, authored by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, would require a doctor performing an abortion to conduct a sonogram on the woman at least 24 hours ahead of the procedure. (The Senate version sets a two-hour mandate.)

The doctor would also show the woman the sonogram image, play the audible heartbeat for her and describe what appears on the sonogram, including the dimensions of the embryo or fetus and the presence of arms or legs. (Both versions of the bill allow the woman to opt out of viewing the sonogram or hearing the heartbeat, though she’d still have to hear the description.)

While the House bill excepts women experiencing a medical emergency, it makes no exception for women who have been the victim of rape or incest, which the Senate version does.

Republicans spent Wednesday advocating for the legislation on “moral” and “informed consent” grounds, while Democrats described the sonogram process in excruciating detail, including bringing a probe up to the dais.

But before they were able to launch into the amendments, Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, raised a point of order. Part of it was about timing — the State Affairs Committee had apparently scheduled public testimony without the mandatory lead time. But part of it was trickier. The committee had taken testimony on the abortion issue, but not on the specific bill — which is not against the rules, but is highly unusual, and not what committees have traditionally done. (The malicious theory is that when the public isn't speaking for or against specific bills, there's no record of opposition. The more realistic theory is that it's a way to get around the housekeeping and reporting rules of committee minutes and witness cards, which are often the targets of technicalities on the House floor.) 

"This was a highly unusual procedure that most observers would say is not in the spirit of the rules," said Hugh Brady, a former Democratic legislative staffer known as an expert on parliamentary rules. Brady said such a move was "highly irregular this early in the session when they have plenty of time to pass the bill." 

Davis' point of order was overruled. But then Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, raised his own point of order to revisit the ruling, suggesting it would overturn years of precedent, and allow committees to take up "matters" without proper notice. The way the committee held the public hearing "was designed to give the false impression that nobody was interested in the individual bill, in this instance the sonogram bill," Martinez Fischer said. "If we allowed this to continue, everybody interested in the subject matter would get a false sense of reality." 

Instead of ruling on Martinez Fischer's point of order, lawmakers agreed to send the abortion sonogram measure back to committee, where it was quickly reapproved with a 9-3 vote so it can return to the House floor tomorrow. 

Opponents of the measure say it’s traumatic to force a woman already grappling with an abortion decision to undergo another procedure. They said sonograms immediately prior to abortions are already medical protocol, and that the best way to prevent unintended pregnancies is to fully fund family planning services instead. “This is a way to shame women and to guilt women,” said Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

But Miller said the measure is about informed consent, and that currently, women aren’t getting adequate information. He said no one objects when airline flight attendants offer safety instructions to passengers. “Anytime you abort a human life, that’s probably the most tragic procedure that could ever be performed,” he said. “If we can save human lives, that is an emergency. I would even put it in front of the budget.”

Today's wrangling over a point of order may be a foretaste of what's to come this session. Democrats, who are far outnumbered and can't win with votes alone, will search for technical snafus to knock down bills they don't like. Republicans will do their own due diligence, trying to avoid opportunities for administrative errors that could derail their legislation.  

State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said the abortion bill will easily pass when it gets back to the House floor. Asked whether committee chairs will continue to use the strategy of not taking testimony on specific bills, he said he didn't know. "Maybe they learned their lesson," he said.  

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