The basic right to have an abortion remains unchanged in the US, but the backbone of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision – that women anywhere in the country should be able to have one – may become an anachronism given moves by the Texas Senate and elsewhere to push abortion to the brink by proxy.
Despite fierce resistance and protests from state Democrats, Texas Senate Republicans on Friday pushed through a bold anti-abortion bill, becoming the 13th state to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and the 10th to do so by citing the potential for “fetal pain” at that age. At 20 weeks, a fetus is fully formed into the shape of a human baby, but researchers say the extent to which the fetus can feel pain is likely on a continuum.
The abortion bill vote in the Texas Senate comes amidst a dramatic surge of conservatism at the state level in counterpoint to President Obama’s more progressive federal era in Washington.
While Obama was reelected in part on a pro-women platform in 2012, all in all, 17 states have limited abortion rights in 2013 alone.
Before passing the bill on Friday, the Texas legislature two weeks ago was the site of an 11-hour filibuster by Democrat Wendy Davis that temporarily stalled the bill, a daring move hailed by supporters as akin to the classic Jimmy Stewart film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Friday’s deliberations were also marked by a circus atmosphere as protesters ringed the capitol in Austin, and some women attempted to chain themselves to a balustrade singing, a la John Lennon, “All we are saying, is give choice a chance.”
Perhaps more significantly for the abortion rights debate than the 20-week limit, however, the bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry, imposes ambulatory surgical center standards on clinics that will, opponents say, dramatically reduce the number of clinics available to women who want to exercise their Constitutional right.
While Texas isn’t the first to set tougher standards for clinics (indeed, North Carolina seems on the brink of a similar move), the bill, if signed into law, would have the biggest impact yet, given that Texas is the nation’s second-largest state, and that both proponents and opponents agree that it would effectively shutter all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics.
Opponents vowed Friday to sue. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has Texas as part of its jurisdiction, has historically been more favorable toward curbing some abortion rights than other circuits.
The fetal pain argument is an outgrowth of the so-called “personhood” argument unsuccessfully attempted in Mississippi and several other states, where it’s asserted that a being’s full right to Constitutional protections begins at conception. But Mississippi Republicans have helped to lay the framework for raising clinic standards to higher, more expensive levels – without any justification, opponents argue.
Democrats have joined in some of the largest protests seen in the Lone Star State in 20 years, and some political analysts suggest that the abortion law may be the last straw in a counter-political movement in Texas that could one day turn the state of 10-gallon hats into a Democratic stronghold. Women and Latinos are seen as the twin constituencies that could turn the red state blue.
“This bill may receive Gov. Perry’s authorization to nearly 90 percent of abortion clinics in the state, but Texans will not abide fewer resources for women to receive the health care that they need,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, in a statement. “Texas voters came out in record numbers to oppose this bill every step of the way and they will turn out in record numbers at the next election.”
But such warnings were waved off by Republicans.
"As Democrats continue to talk about their dreams of turning Texas blue, passage of HB2 is proof that Texans are conservative and organized and we look forward to working with our amazing Republican leadership in the Texas Legislature as they finish the special session strong," a party statement said.