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For Senate Democrats, Abortion Bill Reveals Split

Unlike the debate over voter ID, in which Senate Democrats stood united in their opposition, a combination of politics, religion and personal histories have made the sonogram bill more divisive in their caucus.

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When state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., talks about abortion, the Brownsville Democrat turns quiet and introspective. He is one of 10 children and was raised with Catholic values, he said, which helped shape his anti-abortion beliefs.

“Where is the compassion? Where do we draw the line between having a heart and having no heart at all?” he asks after recalling a news story about a newborn left to die in a toilet after being abandoned by his mother in South Carolina. For Lucio, the potential for life must be protected above all else.

The same day, his colleague, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, told a story of her own. It was years ago, she said, when she met with the archbishop in her district to talk about her support for abortion rights.

“My only plea to him was for him to treat me equally with other members of the Legislature, and that if any religious restrictions were going to be placed on me as a practicing Catholic, because of my views on choice, that they needed to be equally imposed upon my colleagues who are very pro-death penalty,” she said. She wasn’t prohibited from taking communion.

The tales foreshadow what is likely a split vote by Senate Democrats on the controversial sonogram abortion bill — one of Gov. Rick Perry’s emergency legislative priorities — being debated this week in the upper chamber. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, introduced an amended version of his Senate Bill 16 on Wednesday. After further revisions, the bill was voted out of the Senate State Affairs Committee 7-1, with Sen. Van de Putte voting against the measure, late Wednesday night, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.

The amended version still requires a doctor to perform a sonogram, but mandates it be done at least 24 hours before the procedure instead of the original two hour designation. The images will still be displayed to the patient, although she may refuse to view them. A doctor must also play audio of the fetal heartbeat to the woman, who can refuse to listen, though she would still be required to hear a description of the fetus from the doctor (with certain exceptions, including for victims of rape or incest).

Unlike the debate over voter ID, in which Senate Democrats stood united in their opposition, a combination of politics, religion and personal histories have made Patrick’s legislation more divisive in the caucus.

“I feel like I’ve seen many instances where women that have had abortions are regretful. For that reason, giving them a last opportunity to hear a heartbeat or see a sonogram would possibly allow them to make the right decision,” said Lucio, who supported a similar measure in the last legislative session. “To give birth to a baby even if they are not wanted, it’s a step in the right direction because adoption is always an option down the line.”

Patrick isn’t shy about expressing his anti-abortion views, but he maintains that the bill is principally about providing more information to women.

“For me, personally, it is about a woman having the right to know what the doctor is doing before a serious procedure, first and foremost,” he said. He conceded, however, that he hopes minds are changed after the procedure, which he says would mean “saving lives.”

Many who oppose the legislation accuse its Republican supporters of hypocrisy — espousing limited government in almost every situation except abortion, on which they are pushing for greater government intervention. Others note that abortion providers already perform a sonogram as part of their regular procedure (although the women are not required to view it) and say the legislation is a distraction from the most pressing issues facing Texas, mainly a budget crisis.

For some of the seven Senate Hispanic Democrats who are also Catholic, the fight over the sonogram bill is not the first time they have had to reconcile their support of abortion rights with the strictly anti-abortion position of their church.

“I am one of those who believes that a woman has a right to choose and that any kind of government intervention in that decision is unwarranted, unnecessary and violates the woman’s right of privacy,” said freshman Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

Rodríguez, a practicing Catholic who represents a district with a Hispanic majority and a large Catholic constituency, acknowledged he could face a political backlash. But he appears unfazed by the potential consequences.

“I just happen to be one of those who, over the years, has made my position very clear when it comes to questions of the woman’s right to choose, so I don’t equivocate on it,” he said. “People have to judge me on my performance — not only on this issue but other issues — so I’ll take whatever the consequences are.”

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who represents a Hispanic-majority swath of South Texas, also opposes the measure, citing privacy issues.

“It's a measure that interferes with a woman's right to make a decision based on her conscience and in consultation with her doctor,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Texas Tribune. “Besides, government should not intrude into our private lives, and has no business intervening in a doctor patient relationship.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she has been a lector at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church since before she was a lawmaker in the 1980s. But her decision to support the legislation is not, she said, based on her faith. “I support it because I believe in informed consent,” she said.

Zaffirini said she realized she was opposed to abortion during a difficult pregnancy in 1981. “It has nothing to do with politics or religion. It was my own personal decision,” she said.

Like Rodríguez and Hinojosa, Van de Putte said the bill is an overreach and places the government between a woman facing a difficult decision and her doctor. Her 32-year experience as a pharmacist only bolsters her opposition.

“I am Catholic, but I am also a pharmacist,” she said. “I tell you, nothing is more heartbreaking than a women coming to the pharmacy … usually in her 30s, usually with three or four children, with that look of desperation in her eyes, and to look at me and [ask], ‘Is there anything I can take to bring down my period?’” Limiting a woman’s right to choose could also bring back the specter of illegal abortions, especially among the poor, she said.

“Before Roe v. Wade, there have always been abortions,” she said. “They were back-alley, they were brutal and they were gruesome, but people with means always had access to safe terminations of pregnancy.”

The matter has yet to reach the Texas House, but some Hispanic and Catholic lawmakers there have already given it significant thought.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, is a member of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and a Catholic who said the issue doesn’t warrant debate.

“I don’t see anybody out there saying it’s an emergency that we need to get it done,” he said. “What I think is more important is that people are losing their jobs, people are losing their services, and I think that’s what we should be focusing on. I am not going to support it. I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, a University of Notre Dame graduate with a master’s degree in theology and a teacher of theology at the El Paso Catholic Diocese’s Tepeyac Institute, said that as a Catholic, she hopes abortions are rarely performed, if at all. She said she will wait to see how the final bill is written but that she was opposed to the original language. 

“We never, never advocate for them not to have the option. It’s a woman’s choice, and I continue to support a woman to have that option,” she said. Asked if that stance could hurt her on Election Day, she said she thinks her constituents are in line with her beliefs. “Our Hispanic community can understand that this is an issue that we can continue to discuss, “ she said. “It’s a very delicate issue, and I don’t think that fast-tracking anything contributes to a real solution.”

For former Democratic state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, who switched parties after the 2010 election, the choice is also easy.

“I am pro-life. Always been,” he said. “For somebody who is pro-choice, they don’t see it from the perspective of the child. That’s the reason they put the cruelty [label] on the female, on the mother. The real cruelty is on the child. I see it as a civil rights issue."

[Editor's Note: This story was updated to reflect legislative action that took place Wednesday night.]

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Health care State government 82nd Legislative Session Abortion Dan Patrick Eddie Lucio Jr. Federal health reform José R. Rodríguez Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa Judith Zaffirini Roberto R. Alonzo Texas Legislature