Debate over Texas abortion bill prompts tears, frustration and a boycott from Democrats

The hearing on a bill regarding "the rights of a living child born after an abortion" was delayed Monday morning due to a lack of a quorum.

The Texas Capitol.

A Texas House committee's attempt to consider a bill regarding "the rights of a living child born after an abortion" boiled over Monday, leading to tears from the committee chairman, frustration from Republicans and a boycott by Democrats that delayed the hearing for a few hours.

At issue was House Bill 16, filed by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. The bill would require doctors to care for a baby who survives an abortion procedure. It was scheduled to be heard by the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee at 8 a.m. but was put on hold after four Democrats and one Republican didn't show up.

Leach said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, missed because of a flight delay. The four Democrats, meanwhile, signed onto a statement saying that they would not “join this charade,” apparently referring to Leach’s anti-abortion proposal.

“While some members of the Texas Legislature insist on attacking as well as offending women directly and indirectly, we will not join this charade by participating in this political grandstanding on issues which are already codified in Texas and Federal law,” read a statement signed by state Reps. Victoria Neave of Dallas, Julie Johnson of Carrollton, Jessica Farrar of Houston and Yvonne Davis of Dallas. “We refuse to offend our fellow Texas women, their families, and licensed physicians by wasting time on unnecessary legislation designed to intimidate and restrict women’s access to healthcare.”

That forced Leach to postpone the the hearing, since at least five of nine committee members are needed for a quorum. But he insisted on moving forward, instead opting to convene the committee after the full House met and Meyer had returned.

In a statement, Leach said he was "disheartened in the decision by my friends and fellow committee members to skip this morning’s hearing simply because they don't agree on the issue at hand." He added that their absence translated into a disregard for "the voices of Texans" that "greatly undermined our legislative process."

Another Republican on the committee told The Texas Tribune that he was “shocked” other members weren’t present in the morning.

“I drove last night from 3:15 to 6:15 just to get here,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who said his flight to Austin was canceled Sunday afternoon. “So if you want to make the effort to be there, you got to find a way to be there. Sometimes you can’t — I know there were weather issues for [Meyer] coming down. We just need to make sure we’re doing all we can to make the process work as efficiently and effectively as it can.”

Meyer made it to the afternoon meeting and explained his absence in a statement.

"My morning routine often includes dropping my kindergartener off at school and ensuring my 5th and 7th graders get out the door in time for carpool, and with my wife out of town today, I notified Chairman Leach that this would create a slight delay in my arrival," he said. "I look forward to joining Chairman Leach as we hear testimony on a number of bills this afternoon, and I hope our fellow committee members can rise above their political differences and make it a priority to do the same.”

But the four Democrats never came. That sparked more anger from Leach, who could be seen crying from the dais during the testimony of one witness.

"Just because I don’t agree with an issue or support a certain bill doesn’t mean I should stifle and/or ignore the voices of the people of Texas,” he said. "I will encourage every member of this committee, whether they agree or not, to be present and listen to the people of Texas.”

Leach's bill would create a civil penalty of "not less than $100,000" for physicians who fail to provide appropriate medical treatment to a child born during an attempted abortion. Farrar, chairwoman of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, called the bill a "a solution in search of a problem.” Existing federal and state statutes protect infants born alive after an abortion, and there were no live births resulting from an abortion in Texas between 2013 and 2016, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

"Why are we wasting time on this?” she said.

But the bill drew enthusiastic support from some witnesses, including Nashville-based anti-abortion advocate Giana Jessen, who described herself as an abortion survivor. Jessen chastised the Democrats for missing the meeting.

"There were some who chose to not show up — did not even give our lives any time,"Jessen said.

The panel didn't vote on the bill Monday; committees regularly leave bills pending for a week before voting them out. But the legislation has strong support among Republicans in the House. More than 70 members of the 150-person chamber have signed on as co-authors.