The Texas Senate debated a sweeping abortion measure late into the night Tuesday as Democrats vowed to resist passage by any available means, warning that the proposal would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most Texas women to receive the procedure.
Republicans insisted the bills will improve women’s health care by requiring abortion facilities to be vastly improved, doctors to more closely monitor drug-induced abortions and physicians to obtain admitting privileges in a nearby hospital should complications arise.
Democrats and abortion rights advocates, however, said concerns for women’s health are a ruse hiding the bill’s true intent: to shut down most Texas clinics and otherwise make abortions more difficult or expensive to obtain.
“This isn’t about making women safe, is it? It’s about political primaries and making sure you are feeding the red meat to the people who are voting in those primaries,” said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, author of the bill, disagreed. “In Texas, we do not have the level of care at abortion facilities that we need to,” he said.
“Once again,” Davis said, “I ask you to point to any empirical data that tells you we have a health care delivery problem, … and you haven’t been able to point to a single instance.”
Hegar replied that even if he and Davis “pored over” evidence, they would still probably disagree on the need for the bill.
Hegar’s special-session measure is a compilation of three bills that were introduced in the regular session but didn’t get a floor vote in either chamber. In a surprise move, however, Hegar removed a fourth provision that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on disputed reports that a fetus can feel pain at that stage.
Hegar cut the fetal-pain provision after meeting in private with fellow Republicans during a break, planned for 90 minutes but that stretched beyond three hours. Pressed by Democrats for an explanation, Hegar declined to offer specifics, saying only that he believed it was in the best interest of passing a bill before the special session ends next Tuesday.
He also said he didn’t intend to push his stand-alone fetal-pain bill during the Legislature’s overtime session.
Under Hegar’s revised bill:
• All 37 abortion clinics in Texas would have to be certified as ambulatory surgical centers, requiring expensive renovations or new facilities to be built.
• Doctors would have to administer abortion-inducing drugs under U.S. Food and Drug Administration protocols established in 2000, requiring at least one additional doctor’s visit and a higher, more expensive dose than is currently administered.
• Doctors would need to obtain admitting privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of a clinic where an abortion is performed.
More than two dozen Democratic amendments were pending as debate extended late into the night Tuesday.
Democrats focused much of their ire on the surgical center provision, charging that it is intended to close the state’s 37 clinics by making it too expensive to meet certification standards, including large operating rooms with specialized medical equipment, sterile-environment ventilation systems, backup generators, difficult-to-retrofit standards such as minimum widths for hallways and other rules found in 117 pages of government regulations.
Davis accused Republicans of targeting abortion providers, noting that more invasive procedures, including vasectomies and plastic surgery, aren’t performed in ambulatory surgical centers.
But state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said that abortion is a special circumstance requiring additional legislative action.
“What makes this issue so special is that this procedure ends a life,” Nelson said. “We do need to be giving it special attention.”
State Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, said the higher-standard surgical centers exist “because medicine has found out that when you adhere to certain medical standards for certain medical procedures, the outcomes are better.”
Deuell also dismissed complaints that clinics cannot afford to meet the new standards: “It’s a money industry. They have the money to do this.”
Other debate centered on tighter regulations for abortion-inducing drugs.
The standards would require the same doctor to see a woman four times: for a preabortion sonogram, the dispensing of RU-486, the dispensing of a second drug 24 hours later to induce contractions, and a follow-up visit one to two weeks later to ensure that the pregnancy was expelled.
Democratic opponents of the bill said there is no medical need for a doctor to hand over the contraction-causing medication in person.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, took exception to the bill’s reliance on FDA protocols for dispensing RU-486.
The protocols were written in 2000, when the agency set the RU-486 dose at 600 milligrams. In the years since, doctors have learned that 200 milligrams is enough, producing the same results with fewer side effects, said Van de Putte, a pharmacist for 33 years.
The Senate voted 19-11 to table her amendment to change the dosages.