Abortion Bills Gaining Momentum in Legislature

After months of little movement in the Texas Legislature on proposals to further restrict abortion, the pace is picking up as a flurry of bills moves to the House and Senate floors.

After months of little movement in the Texas Legislature on proposals to further restrict abortion, the pace is picking up as a flurry of bills moves to the House and Senate floors.

Both chambers had taken up some abortion-related bills in legislative committees, but it wasn’t until last week that lawmakers began clearing the way in earnest for a variety of measures to restrict the procedure or impose additional requirements on abortion providers.

“As someone who is a strong pro-life advocate, I wish these had been debated on the floor and in the Senate much earlier,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth. “We did feel like it was coming along very slowly, but I’m glad to see that it seems like the momentum is picking up.”

Krause’s bill to reform so-called judicial bypass — the legal process that allows some minors to obtain abortions without their parents’ permission if obtaining consent could endanger the minor — is among a handful of abortion bills that were referred to the House State Affairs Committee but were never scheduled for a hearing.

Krause said he opted instead to work with state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who also proposed a bill that would drastically reform judicial bypass. On Monday, the State Affairs Committee voted out Morrison’s measure.

“Now that people are kind of coming together and working with each other, now we’re seeing the flow move a little faster,” Krause said.

The committee has also approved a proposal by state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, that would ban abortion coverage from health insurance plans offered on the federal Affordable Care Act’s marketplace; a measure by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, that would require abortion facilities to display information on abortion consent, abuse, child support and adoption services; and a bill by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, that would require abortion facility staff to complete training on human trafficking.

In the upper chamber, where fewer abortion-related bills were filed, the Senate State Affairs Committee endorsed a measure by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, that would prohibit abortion coverage in both private health insurance plans and those offered through the federal marketplace.

The full chamber also voted out a bill by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, that would allow health and human services agencies to maintain information about “adverse actions” at abortion facilities.

“We are very pleased with the pro-life bills in the House and the Senate,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life. “We are on a path to have a very successful session from our point of view.”

With several bills now on the move, Democratic state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston said abortion legislation may have been on a slower timeline so that it didn’t “tie up” other legislative priorities, but she added that was only delaying the inevitable.

“I think they will continue to restrict [it] until no woman can access abortion,” said Farrar, who chairs the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus. “What good is a right if you can’t access it? And so they’re just shutting any and every door.”

New abortion restrictions would come two years after the Legislature passed one of the nation's strictest abortion laws, also known as House Bill 2, which has led to the closure of dozens of clinics in the state and could leave Texas with fewer than 10 clinics — all in major metropolitan areas — if the abortion law holds up against an ongoing legal challenge.

But some conservatives say far-reaching abortion measures have not been prioritized this time around.

“I think some of the legislators are frustrated because they felt like they hadn’t been sure that there would be a time and a place to have these discussions on the floor,” said Emily Horne, a lobbyist with Texas Right to Life. “It’s been a slow session for us.”

Among the anti-abortion bills that have yet to be considered in committee are two proposals by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, that would tighten reporting requirements for abortion facilities and remove an exemption to the state’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation for abortions based on severe fetal abnormalities.

After waiting for a committee hearing, Schaefer attached his bills as amendments to legislation meant to streamline services at the state’s public health agency, prompting a heated floor fight Thursday over abortion that eventually knocked the bill off the floor.

“When you can’t get a hearing … then you take what’s available and you use your privilege as a member of the House of Representatives and the rules that are available,” Schaefer said.

On Friday, Schaefer’s bill to revise reporting requirements for abortion facilities, requiring them to submit monthly reports — rather than annual reports — was scheduled for a Wednesday hearing in the House State Affairs Committee, though committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said he was already planning to take up the bill before Thursday's floor debate.

Schaefer said he received blowback from senior members of the House but plans to continue pushing for the fetal abnormality ban, which has not been scheduled for a hearing.

“I don’t think this is a priority for House leadership, and I think they would rather not have highly controversial issues dealt with,” Schaefer said, adding that abortion legislation was also not part of the governor’s legislative priorities that seemed to be driving the agenda. “When the governor doesn’t make it a priority, maybe others don’t either.”

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Responding to claims that the House was moving slowly on abortion legislation, Cook said the chamber is moving at a “prudent pace.”

“I think the bills that are being voted out were bills that we anticipated would be voted out,” Cook said.

Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, echoed that sentiment.

“House committees are voting out bills every day on a range of priorities, including education, budget transparency, transportation and pro-life issues,” Embry said. “May is going to be very busy.”