Sweeping abortion regulations sent to Gov. Abbott

5:58 p.m Friday, May 26, 2017 Local
Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, is a primary sponsor of Senate Bill 8, which was passed on to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk Friday.

Eleven months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned abortion regulations that would have left only nine clinics open in Texas, sweeping new restrictions are on their way to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

Voting 22-9, the Texas Senate on Friday gave final approval to Senate Bill 8, which requires fetal tissue to be buried or cremated, restricts the most common procedure for second-trimester abortions and prohibits medical research use of fetal tissue from abortions.

The bill also creates state crimes for two practices already prohibited by federal law — selling fetal body parts and “partial-birth” abortions.

Democrats predicted the state would again find itself on the losing end of court rulings.

“There no question in my mind that we’re going to be sued again,” said state Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

“This imposes more barriers to women who are trying to get treated or are seeking safe abortions,” Rodriguez said. “It’s unfortunate that in this state we are seemingly interminably pursuing these measures that inevitably are going to lead to challenges in the federal courts.”

But Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown — who moved to concur with an extensive list of abortion regulations that the House added to his bill — noted that the measure also contains a severability clause, removing any section overturned by the courts so the rest of the legislation can remain in force.

“We should not be afraid to pass laws that are necessary, proper and right,” Schwertner said.

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Abbott applauded the measure.

“The governor believes this pro-life legislation is a robust response that bans the sale of fetal tissue, stops the inhumane practices of partial-birth abortions, and ensures that, at the very least, fetal remains are treated with dignity,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said after the vote.

All Republicans and two Democrats — Sens. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo — voted to send SB 8 to Abbott. The House vote also was split largely along party lines.

SB 8 marks the state’s first significant foray into abortion regulations since 2013, when two divisive special sessions were needed to enact limits that led to the closure of about half of the state’s abortion clinics — and, if fully implemented, would have left only nine open, all in the state’s largest urban areas.

The Supreme Court, however, struck down the heart of the law in June 2016, blocking requirements that abortions be done in hospital-like settings and that abortion doctors gain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Under SB 8, abortion clinics, hospitals and emergency centers must ensure that fetal tissue — whether from an abortion or miscarriage — is buried, cremated or incinerated. Ashes must be buried or properly scattered “and may not be placed in a landfill,” the legislation says.

The bill also creates a registry of funeral homes and cemeteries that are willing to provide free or low-cost common burials, as well as of private organizations willing to provide financial help.

A federal judge in January blocked Texas from enforcing similar rules that had been adopted last year by state health officials.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said state officials admitted that the policy offered no health benefits and replaced tissue-disposal regulations that caused no health problems. And although state leaders said the change was needed to promote respect for life and dignity for the “unborn,” Sparks said the rule was difficult to comply with, could lead to arbitrary enforcement and seemed a pretext for restricting access to abortion.

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Currently, fetal tissue from abortions is most commonly incinerated and sent to sanitary landfills.

SB 8 also includes a provision, inserted last week by the House, banning “dismemberment” abortions on fetuses with a heartbeat. Abortion rights activists say the restriction will ban “dilation and evacuation” abortions that physicians have determined to be the safest procedure — and the most commonly used — in the second trimester.

Similar laws have been enacted in seven other states, though courts have blocked four of them.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which led the legal fight that upended the Texas abortion regulations from 2013, vowed to return to court over SB 8.

“Texas taxpayers will now have to pay for expensive litigation because lawmakers insist on passing bills they know are unconstitutional, simply to appease an extremist anti-choice lobby,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

But Schwertner said SB 8 was an important achievement.

“This bill is meant to address very sincerely held concerns expressed by thousands of Texans and will ensure the dignity and protection of the unborn child,” he said.

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