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Sweeping anti-abortion bill heads to governor's desk

Texas senators voted Friday to send a bill banning the most common second-trimester abortion procedure and changing how health care facilities handle fetal remains to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on March 27, 2017.  The committee is consider several bills related to long-term care facilities including S.B. 1130 by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa and others.  

Texas senators voted Friday to send a bill banning the most common second-trimester abortion procedure and changing how health care facilities handle fetal remains to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. (Updated, June 6: Abbott signed the bill into law.)

Under Senate Bill 8, which passed 22-9, health care facilities including hospitals and abortion clinics would be required to bury or cremate any fetal remains — whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. The bill would also ban facilities from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, and aims to outlaw "partial-birth abortions," which are already illegal under federal law. 

Most controversially, the bill now bans 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 deceased. Medical professionals deem the current method the safest way to perform the procedure on a pregnant woman, and reproductive rights groups have said this change would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure.

But abortion opponents, who have dubbed the procedure “dismemberment” abortions, argue they're "gruesome."

John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, said the ban was the organization's top legislative priority this session and that it stops an "inhumane practice." He said since "opponents of pro-life legislation cannot win in Texas at the ballot box," he won't be surprised if the issue ends up in court. 

Amanda Allen, senior state legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a news release that Texas legislators are continuing "their crusade against a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion." 

“Texas women deserve access to the health care that is best for them and their personal circumstances — not abortion restrictions pushed by extreme anti-abortion organizations," Allen said. "The Center for Reproductive Rights vows to battle any unconstitutional measures in the courts until the rights of Texas women are respected and protected.”

The group sued late last year over a Texas Department of State Health Services proposal that would have required health providers to bury or cremate fetal remains. Center lawyers won a temporary restraining order and in January a federal judge ruled Texas could not proceed with the rule, citing its vagueness and potential to harm patients.

Reproductive rights advocates have repeatedly warned that providers would likely pass on the costs for cremation and burial to women. Legislators have tried to address this in SB 8 by having the department create a burial or cremation assistance registry. The registry would have a list of nonprofits, funeral homes and cemeteries willing to help providers with the costs.  

Democrats in both chambers are placing bets on how quickly litigation will arise, recalling the fate of 2013's House Bill 2, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down last summer. The high court voted 5-3 to block the new requirement that Texas abortion facilities meet minimum room sizes and have pipelines for anesthesia, and force their doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the facility.

Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said the state was "just inviting a challenge" with the passage of SB 8. Similar legislation is tied up in court in LouisianaKansas and Oklahoma.

"A challenge is sure to come as soon as it’s signed by the governor," Rodríguez said. "... This one is in fact unconstitutional and has already been declared so by one federal judge."

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. 

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

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