The sponsor of Texas’ omnibus abortion bill dropped a central tenet of the legislation yesterday, in advance of an hours-long debate in the state senate. Glenn Hegar said he wouldn’t pursue a 20-week abortion ban because he’d rather concentrate on anti-choice measures that would be more likely to pass in the handful of days the legislature has left in its special session.
But Hegar’s bill, SB 5, still has plenty of teeth. It would require all abortion-providing doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, mandate that all abortion clinics become licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, and demand that doctors prescribe the RU-486 abortion pill regimen solely according to 13-year-old Food and Drug Administration regulations that are now considered potentially toxic in practice, in addition to requiring multiple clinical visits for Texans who are seeking the abortion pill.
Any one of these measures would have devastating effects on the practice of safe, legal abortion care in Texas, especially on low-income, rural Texans’ access to that care. For affluent and urban Texans, the calendar will stay set on 2013, at least inasmuch as abortion will continue to be legally available to those who can pay for it—and pay to travel to obtain it.
But for those Texans who can’t afford a safe, legal abortion, driving hundreds of miles to a reputable doctor for care, “legality” is hardly the issue. Many who attended Tuesday’s hearing decked out in 1950s and ’60s-era Mad Men-style clothes worry that SB 5 will send Texas back in to a pre-Roe v. Wade era, with women crossing the border into Mexico hoping to get abortion pills, or resorting to back-alley procedures from unlicensed providers.
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Because a post-SB 5 Texas would reduce the number of doctors—already only a few—who can and will provide abortions in the state, close all abortion clinics west of San Antonio (nearly half the state) and force rural women to drive hundreds of miles, not once but twice, to take doses of an abortion pill that previously could have been provided at a local clinic or over the phone. Put into place now, the law would close all but five abortion clinics in Texas.
And yet, Hegar claimed repeatedly at Tuesday night’s hearing that his sole concern was “raising the standard of care,” rather than reducing access to safe, legal abortion. When senate Democrats asked him for empirical evidence showing that abortion care provided in ambulatory surgical centers is significantly safer than abortion care provided at licensed abortion clinics, he simply repeated his mantra: “This raises the standard of care.”
In fact, that was practically the only response Hegar gave to most questions. Only he knows whether that’s because he’s truly ignorant to the implications of his bill, or because he’s an Oscar contender in the role of hapless country bumpkin. Why force doctors to prescribe toxic levels of abortion drugs, out of keeping with evidence-based practices? “This raises the standard of care.” Why not increase access to contraception? “This is about the standard of care.” Was Hegar concerned that the American College of Gynecologists has said that SB 5 would endanger the lives and health of women? “This raises the standard of care.”
Indeed, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) closed her questions on SB 5 with a blistering indictment of Hegar’s motives: “This isn’t about making women safe, is it? It’s about political primaries and making sure the you’re feeding the red meat.”
Davis and her fellow Democrats went on to propose a number of amendments to the bill, aimed at addressing systemic poverty and root causes of unplanned pregnancy through increasing access to contraception and expanding Medicaid, as Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Texas senate, interjected with basketball scores from the NBA Finals. Those proposals were all tabled—much like Dewhurst’s late meal at a local steakhouse, which he snuck out for while his colleagues were busy pushing Texans back into back alleys.