The Legislature kicked off the latest round in the abortion wars Wednesday as state senators and the public took advantage of their first chance to address bills that seek to limit certain procedures and regulate the treatment of fetal tissue.
Much of the Democratic firepower was supplied by state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who repeatedly pressed the Republican authors of the three bills to justify regulations or explain how the proposals would improve women’s health.
The Republicans fired back during Wednesday’s Capitol hearing, saying the changes would correct regulatory shortcomings, outlaw “barbaric” practices and ensure that fetal remains are treated with respect.
More than three hours of public testimony featured a familiar back and forth. Abortion advocates said the bills would further stigmatize women and improperly interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, while abortion opponents voiced appreciation for any effort to crack down on a procedure they consider murder — although many criticized the bills for not going far enough.
“Stop regulating murder and instead abolish abortion altogether,” one witness said in a frequently echoed statement.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee didn’t vote on whether to send the bills to the full Senate, but, with Republicans holding a 6-3 edge, committee approval is all but assured when the panel next meets.
The hearing opened with state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, the committee’s chairman, saying that his Senate Bill 8 was needed to correct abuses, including potential offers to change abortion procedures to better procure fetal organs, that he said were revealed by undercover videos taken of Planned Parenthood officials in 2015.
SB 8 would bar the donation of all fetal tissue from abortions, create a state ban on selling fetal body parts that mirrors a federal ban, and prohibit “partial-birth” abortions, a second-trimester procedure also prohibited by federal law.
Watson disputed whether the Planned Parenthood videos, taken by undercover abortion opponents, showed the abuses Schwertner alleged. Watson also questioned whether the bill would ban DNA testing on fetal remains to identify a rapist or identify the genetic cause of fetal abnormalities. Schwertner said he was willing to consider adding language to clarify that such testing wouldn’t be affected by SB 8.
A separate bill by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would ban “dismemberment” abortions performed in the second trimester. Senate Bill 415 requires that there be no fetal heartbeat before a “dilation and evacuation” abortion can be performed, he said.
“You are required to terminate the life of a child before you tear it apart piece by piece,” Perry said. “We are not outlawing D&Es,” which he said account for 96 percent of second-trimester abortions.
Watson asked whether the bill would enhance the health and safety of women.
“If you are going to allow abortions, then (the U.S. Supreme Court has said) the state has a vested interest in doing it as humanely and civilly as possible,” Perry said. “The health and safety of a woman is not the target, not the intent of SB 415.”
The third piece of legislation, Senate Bill 258, would give women the option of choosing to bury or cremate fetal remains after an abortion. It also would outlaw the most common disposal method after an abortion — depositing incinerated ashes in a sanitary landfill.
The bill, which also would apply to miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies treated in hospitals or surgical centers, but not to women who miscarry at home, would require health centers to ensure that fetal remains are buried or cremated, with the ashes appropriately scattered.
State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said the changes were needed to protect the “dignity of the most vulnerable among us, the unborn.”
Watson again asked if SB 258 would enhance the health and safety of women. “My bill is not about that,” Huffines said. “My bill strictly deals with the dignity of the unborn.”
Watson also questioned whether the bill’s restrictions would add significantly to the cost of abortions and said only one provider has been identified that was willing to accept and cremate fetal remains at an affordable rate — factors identified recently by a federal judge who blocked enforcement of a state rule requiring abortion clinics to ensure that all fetal remains be buried or cremated.
“I believe that when the demand is there, the market will respond,” Huffines said.