Editor's note: This story was updated May 20 to add that SB 8 passed on third reading

GOP House lawmakers took a sweeping approach to anti-abortion legislation on Friday, giving an initial OK to a measure that would ban the most common form of second-trimester procedure and change how health care providers dispose of fetal remains.

Under the broad strokes of Senate Bill 8, any health care facility, including hospitals and abortion clinics, would have to bury or cremate any fetal remains whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth, and they would be banned from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers. The bill also bans "partial-birth abortions," which are already illegal under federal law.

An amendment added to the bill during House debate would also prohibit providers from performing dilation and evacuation abortions — a common second-trimester procedure where doctors use surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue — unless the fetus is already deceased. Abortion opponents call the procedure "dismemberment abortions."

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House members passed the bill 96-47; the chamber must take a final vote on the measure before it returns to the Senate. (Update, May 20: SB 8 passed 93-45 on its third and final reading)

Opponents of the measure say dilation and evacuation abortions are the safest way to perform the procedure on a pregnant woman, and that requiring the fetus to be deceased would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure. 

They have also said burying or cremating fetal remains — and taking away a woman's right to donate fetal tissue to medical research — are additional ways to burden and stigmatize women who choose to have a legal procedure. They predicted even more litigation.

"Why don't we just stop passing unconstitutional laws for a change?" asked state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.  

But Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, the bill's House sponsor, said the measure would "make sure tissue from aborted babies are not turned into a commodity." And even though "partial-birth" abortions are already illegal, she said her measure helps align state and federal statute.

On Friday, some of those same lawmakers used the SB 8 debate to tack on amendments similar to previously filed anti-abortion bills that didn't get a vote, including the amendments banning dilation and evacuation abortions. That amendment passed 92-42.  

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Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, the amendment's author, told members it was important to have the "dismemberment abortion" ban so fetuses would not be "ripped and torn apart."

"There are other procedures that can be done," Klick repeatedly told Democrats that challenged her. 

The Texas American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists has previously expressed its opposition to such a ban, arguing that the name opponents of the procedure give it is "not real medical terminology" and that the proposed ban "prevents physicians from offering the safest medical care possible to patients."

The legislation "creates a dangerous environment for patients that would prevent doctors from having every option available when providing a patient with the best possible care in any given situation — including when necessary to protect a woman’s health," according to a Texas American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists letter outlining the group's opposition. 

The SB 8 debate comes as lawmakers head into the final days of the legislative session, which ends May 29. Last week, the House Freedom Caucus — a group of socially conservative members — blocked more than 100 bills from being heard on the traditionally fast-tracked local calendar, in part, they say, because the House hadn't taken up anti-abortion legislation sooner. 

Throughout the debate, House Democrats tried to get their own amendments passed but repeatedly failed. That included measures that would have made exceptions for sexual assault survivors seeking an abortion. They also pointed to how the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the 2013 Legislature's restrictive anti-abortion bill, House Bill 2.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said in a news release after the bill passed that the legislation is "based on lies and misinformation" about late-term abortions and fetal tissue.

"The sad truth is this bill’s supporters are peddling lies to shame women who seek an abortion and make it harder for them to get access to the reproductive health care they need," Miller said.

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The issue of how to dispose of fetal remains is already tied up in court. The Texas Department of State Health Services was supposed to implement a similar rule in December, but lawyers for the abortion rights group Center for Reproductive Rights won a temporary restraining order to halt its implementation. A federal judge ruled in January that the state could not proceed with the rule, citing its vagueness, undue burden and potential for irreparable harm.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas House’s self-labeled Freedom Caucus killed two bills aimed at helping the state curb its alarming rise in mothers dying less than a year after childbirth, along with more than 100 other measures.
  • The upper chamber gave final passage to a bill that would ban what opponents call "partial-birth" abortions and put restrictions on donating fetal tissue, and initial approval to one that would ban doctors from performing dilation and evacuation abortions.
  • Texas Democrats and abortion rights advocates are strategizing amid mounting worries over what the GOP-led Legislature and federal lawmakers may do in the coming months to further restrict access to the procedure.
  • Reproductive rights advocates have expressed concern that Texas lawmakers will take bolder steps in the upcoming session to defund abortion providers and dismantle access to abortion, birth control and other sexual health services. 
  • U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled Texas cannot require health providers to bury or cremate fetuses, delivering another blow to state leaders in the reproductive rights debate. 

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