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In a More Conservative Legislature, Few Anti-Abortion Bills Passed

Two years after passing some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country, Republican lawmakers are leaving their 2015 session having passed just one piece of anti-abortion legislation.

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Two years after passing some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country — and with a state Legislature considered even more conservative than in years past — Republican lawmakers are leaving their 2015 session having passed just one piece of legislation to further restrict the procedure.

Some attributed it to a lack of interest in such a divisive social issue from top leadership in the chambers. Others think there was some fatigue on the issue after the sweeping measures that passed in 2013 — some of which are still tangled up in court.

"If we look back at the 2013 session, [abortion opponents] were so successful that there was almost no room for additional success this session," said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. "So they were left with trying to reduce the number of abortions at the very margins, which then became far more symbolic than anything else."

The measure that made it out of both chambers this year is House Bill 3994, which tightens the requirements on “judicial bypass,” the legal process that allows minors to obtain court approval for an abortion if asking their parents for permission could endanger them. That measure, heralded as a huge win by abortion opponents, is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

But more than 20 other bills that would have further restricted the procedure in Texas failed somewhere along the legislative process. 

One of those measures would have prohibited abortion based on the sex of an unborn child. Another would have tightened the reporting requirements for abortion providers. Among the most controversial proposals was a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of gestation in cases of severe fetal abnormalities.

When those bills went nowhere in committee, Republicans attempted to tack them onto other bills as amendments. In one case, that maneuver derailed the consideration of an otherwise innocuous bill reforming the Department of State Health Services; a heated floor fight eventually knocked the bill off of the House floor.

But perhaps the most notable abortion legislation that flamed out was Senate Bill 575, which would have prohibited coverage of the procedure on certain health insurance plans.

After the bill stalled in the House State Affairs Committee, Republican state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford helped spur it forward by threatening a floor vote on the fetal abnormality abortion ban, which he had filed as an amendment to another bill.

But after lawmakers moved the watered-down abortion insurance bill out of committee, it eventually died in the House against a legislative deadline.

A day later, Stickland blamed House leadership for not prioritizing abortion legislation in the lower chamber.

“I will tell you this: I blame leadership for the death of SB 575,” Stickland said. “It was mismanaged from the start.”

He also pointed to a House version of the bill that never even got a committee hearing, and a similar abortion bill that was voted out too late in the legislative session to have a shot.

Indeed, most abortion-related legislation in both the House and the Senate sat idle in committees for months — to the frustration of some conservatives. It wasn’t until late April that the Legislature picked up its pace on those bills.

The anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life echoed Stickland’s frustration, claiming the abortion insurance bill was “sabotaged” and that other measures didn’t move fast enough to make it onto Abbott’s desk.

“Those in the Texas House who fought valiantly to stand for the lives of pre-born Texans are to be commended and share Texas Right to Life’s dismay that their pro-life values and those of their constituents were stifled by the ruling class,” Texas Right to Life spokeswoman Melissa Conway said in a statement.

Though Democrats were proud that they fought off most of the abortion-related legislation — using parliamentary tricks and stall tactics at the end of the session — state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said she was displeased that any further restrictions to abortion were even considered.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the issue was even addressed at all after last session,” Howard said. “It seems to clearly be more about political issues — Republican primary elections — because last session so much was done. It felt like hitting someone while they’re down to come back to it this session.”

Any additional restrictions on abortion this session would have come while last session's measures are still being considered by a three-judge panel of a federal appellate court. Among those restrictions, collectively known as HB 2, is a provision that requires facilities that perform abortions to meet the same hospital-like standards of ambulatory surgical centers, like certain sizing for rooms and doorways.

With its other provisions — including a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic — HB 2 has led to the closure of dozens of clinics in the state. Critics warn it could leave Texas with fewer than 10 clinics statewide — all in major metropolitan areas — if the abortion law holds up in court.

A decision could come any day, but the legal fight is likely far from over. If abortion advocates lose, they could still appeal the decision to the full appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though few abortion restrictions passed this legislative session, opponents of abortion claimed a victory in the state’s budget, which ousted Planned Parenthood from a joint state-federal cancer screening program and cut off the last bit of taxpayer money the organization received. Planned Parenthood clinics that previously received those dollars for cancer screening were already prohibited from performing abortions. 

Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life, said it was “sensational” session for his group. He added that it was understandable that the Legislature was taking a more piecemeal approach to abortion legislation after the restrictions on abortion it enacted in 2013.

“For us, that was the bill of the century,” Pojman said. “I don’t think I’ll live for another bill of that magnitude.”  

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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