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Texas Senate tackles special session abortion bills

Texas senators tentatively approved bills that would require physicians and facilities to do more detailed reporting on abortions — and fine those who do not comply.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, pauses during debate with Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, while talking on Senate Bill 10 on July 24, 2017. The measure would modify reporting requirements for physicians performing abortions.  

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the passage of Senate Bill 73

Texas senators tentatively approved two bills that would require physicians and facilities to report more details about abortions — and fine those who do not comply — during a grueling day of floor debate that showed no signs of stopping by early evening Monday.

Under state Sen. Donna Campbell’s Senate Bill 10, in procedures where complications occur, physicians would be required, within 72 hours, to submit reports to the state health commission that include detailed information like the patient’s year of birth, race, marital status, state and county of residence, the date of her last menstrual cycle, the number of previous abortions, and the number of previous live births. Physicians who failed to comply with the reporting requirements would face a $500 fine for each day of each violation.

The reporting requirements in Senate Bill 73, from state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, would include whether minors seeking abortions did so because of a medical emergency and whether they obtained parental consent or a judicial bypass.

Both bills preliminarily passed 22-to-9. (Update, July 26: Both bills passed the Senate on third reading and now head to the House.)

Campbell said current reporting requirements on abortion complications were “sporadic and inefficient.”

“Collecting this data is important to guarantee best medical practices,” said Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, adding that the state needed to “cast a wider net” in gathering data.

During a hearing on the bill Friday, reproductive rights groups said the requirements would violate the privacy rights of doctors and patients.

On the Senate floor Monday, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, pointed out the very low rate of complications reported as a result of abortions performed in the state. In 2015, the latest year data was available, there were only 25 complications reported for more than 50,000 abortions.

But Campbell said that was the reason her bill was needed.

“The percentage is so small that we are doing something wrong,” Campbell said. “We are doing something wrong to have 50,000 abortions in Texas and have such a low number of complications reporting, or we are doing something right, so why not validate it.”

Democrat José Menéndez of San Antonio questioned whether the bill’s requirements held doctors who perform abortions to different standards.

“There’s nothing punitive meant, it’s really just trying to get good data,” Campbell responded.

Reproductive rights groups say the requirements are intended to further limit access to abortion and would violate the privacy rights of doctors and patients.

During a hearing on the bills Friday, Susan Hays, an appellate lawyer who handles judicial bypass cases, said the law already required clinics performing abortions on minors to make reports to the state. 

“What frustrates me about all this is the constant barraging of clinics with extra technical things to deal with,” Hays said during a Friday hearing on the bills. “They are audited constantly, it is no secret that the goal of that is intimidation.”

Hughes said Monday his bill was about making sure "little girls who are in this terrifying situation are looked out for and given all of their options." 

A House panel voted out that chamber’s version of abortion complications reporting requirement bill Monday afternoon.

Two more abortion measures are eligible for consideration in the Senate Monday — one that would restrict insurance coverage of the procedure and one that prohibits local and state government agencies from contracting with abortion providers and their affiliates.

Senate Bill 8, sponsored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-The Woodlands, requires women to pay a separate premium if they want their health plan to cover abortions performed outside of medical emergencies. It does not contain exceptions for victims of rape.

Critics of the legislation say no one can anticipate needing an abortion, and forcing people to pay for the procedure as supplemental coverage would have a heavy impact on low-income Texans and people of color.

“SB 8 is part of an agenda that seeks to make life-altering health care decisions for people against their will, to shame people seeking abortion in the name of scoring political points,” Laila Khalili, a board member of the Lilith Fund, an organization that provides financial assistance to women seeking abortions, said during a Saturday hearing on the bill.

The bill’s supporters say that opponents of abortion should not be forced to pay for the procedure through their insurance plans.

“What this would do is allow those who do not support abortion to not be forced into purchasing insurance with it. Those who don’t have a problem with abortion could still use it as an option and purchase insurance with coverage,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R- North Richland Hills, said during the hearing.

Senate Bill 4, from state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would prohibit local and state government agencies from contracting with abortion providers and their affiliates.

State and federal law already prohibit tax dollars from paying for abortions, but SB 4 would broaden that ban to include any financial contracts — such as lease agreements — with clinics that are affiliated with abortion providers but don't actually perform abortions. Such clinics provide other healthcare like HIV and family planning services, breast and cervical cancer screenings. 

Senators acknowledged during a Friday hearing that the only abortion provider in the state affected by the bill would be Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions at surgical centers separate from their clinics that offer standard reproductive healthcare. According to the organization’s latest report, abortions made up 3 percent of procedures done in 2015.

All of the measures were approved during marathon hearings on Friday and Saturday, and cover the three abortion-related topics Gov. Greg Abbott placed on his 20-item special session agenda.

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