Texas tilts right on abortion and other issues

With three bills that herald sweeping restrictions, one state's debate sheds light on a national struggle.

While abortion foes notched a significant victory with their ban on so-called partial-birth abortions in Congress last week, they are also making major inroads in some states - notably Texas, which this spring passed some of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws.

For years, Texas was a prime target of the anti-abortion movement. But Democrats in the state legislature, and occasionally the governor's chair, routinely blocked efforts at limiting women's access to abortions.

Now, with Republicans controlling both sides of the aisle and virtually every state-government office, abortion opponents are pushing ahead with an agenda that could reverberate in clinics nationwide.

This session, abortion foes passed three bills that together require women to wait 24 hours and undergo counseling before getting an abortion, define a fetus as an "individual" from the moment of its conception, and cut $13 million of state funding from Planned Parenthood's contraception and family-planning programs. All await the governor's signature.

In some ways, Texas's direction on abortion mirrors what's happening in Congress and in other state legislatures. The 24-hour waiting period, for instance, is already law in many states, though the Texas bill is the most sweeping. In other ways - such as defining the fetus as an individual with legal rights - the Texas moves may be a harbinger of things to come.

"In many ways, Texas shapes the social agenda for the conservative movement nationwide," says Elizabeth Graham, associate director of Texas Right to Life. Of all the states, for example, Texas sends one of the highest numbers of abortion opponents to Congress. Eighteen of its 32 members of Congress oppose the procedure, and three of those are Democrats.

Certainly, Ms. Graham's Texas crusade has been easier since the Republican sweep in the 2002 mid-term elections. She's had her phone calls returned, met with key lawmakers, and gotten bills heard. Leadership in past sessions, she says, was "completely hostile. Now that the statehouse is very much in our favor, we have had a couple of tremendous victories."

The potential impact across the state

One of those victories is the 24-hour waiting period, during which doctors must give women information on possible risks, including a controversial assertion that abortion is linked to breast cancer. A woman can refuse the information by signing a waiver, but must still wait 24 hours for an abortion. The "Women's Right to Know" bill also requires that abortions after 16 weeks be performed in a hospital - though only a handful of Texas hospitals offer the service.

These bills are especially hard on the poor, says Claudia Stravato, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Amarillo. Currently only 15 of the state's 254 counties offer abortion services, and transporting women to clinics is hard enough without finding hotels for the mandated waiting period.

In addition, a rider on the appropriations bill cut all state funding, including contraception and family-planning monies, for clinics that perform abortions. The Amarillo Planned Parenthood is one of seven clinics that will continue to receive funding because it doesn't perform abortions, but the five clinics that do will lose significant financial support.

Window on social conservatives' power

Ms. Stravato, who worked in state government for 25 years, calls the three bills an anti-abortion "cluster bomb" pushed through by legislators currying the favor of the religious right. "I only hope they've made Jesus happy, because they haven't done anything to protect the health and welfare of the women in this state," she says.

The abortion bills - along with the passage of several other socially conservative bills this session - reflect the growing power of the Christian right in Texas since Republicans took control.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, for instance, recently signed into law a ban on recognition of same-sex marriages formed in other states and another bill requiring all children to observe a minute of silence and pledge allegiance to the American and Texas flags each school day. Sixty years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that schools could not force students to recite the pledge, so the new Texas law allows students to be excused at a parent's request.

Many of these ideas had been pushed by the religious right in prior years, but found success only this year, under the new GOP-dominated government.

The question now is whether such bills will show up in other states with Republican majorities. Dan Panetti, a lobbyist with the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families in Dallas, believes the country is searching for stronger morals, and is voting for politicians who stand for them. "Morality is just religion externalized," he says. "It is based on what the source of right and wrong is. And this country was founded on the belief that the source comes from God."

But as social conservatives in Texas celebrate their success, noting that voters approved of the direction when they cast their ballots, polls show that a majority of Republican voters weren't voting on moral or social issues, but according to their views on the economy and the war, says Kae McLaughlin, director of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Still, Texas politicians have not lost sight of the power of aligning themselves with organizations like the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association. These groups traditionally turn out 90 percent of their voters, while more moderate Republicans show up about 10 to 15 percent of the time.

"It's as if the tail's wagging the dog. Right now, the Republican party is being handled by the religious right because they are able to deliver the votes," says Ms. McLaughlin. "But people had better wake up and realize what a deep threat their agenda is."

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