Abortion bills gain little traction as Texas Legislature turns its attention to LGBTQ restrictions
The first Texas legislative session since the overturn of Roe v. Wade was “a draw,” said Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, as abortion bills on either side of the aisle languished in parliamentary purgatory.
“For the first time that I can remember, for quite a few sessions, back to at least 2011, maybe before that, we haven’t really dealt with abortion,” Howard said.
Despite some pre-session talk about adding additional exceptions, Texas’ abortion laws will likely look the same at the end of the session as they did at the beginning: a near-total ban on the procedure, with additional penalties for “furnishing the means” or “aiding and abetting” in abortions. All of Texas’ abortion laws have exceptions to save the life of the pregnant patient and exempt the person who has the abortion from prosecution.
These laws have created confusion, with pregnant Texans and doctors reporting issues with emergency pregnancy care, miscarriage treatment and even getting accurate pregnancy information.
Five women filed a lawsuit in March, alleging that they were denied medically necessary abortions due to “widespread confusion among the medical community” about how and when health care workers can provide abortions.
This has not gone unnoticed by the Republicans who run Texas. Last September, in the midst of his reelection campaign against Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Gov. Greg Abbott said “there were some things we need to work on,” calling on the Legislature to “clarify the ways that we are protecting the life of the mother.”
Some moderate Republicans in tight races also talked about wanting to add exceptions for rape or incest.
“If I get a chance to vote for an exception [for] rape, I will vote yes,” state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said at the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival. “I think instead of us telling women what to do, we should show our support for women of this state.”
While Democrats filed bills that would add those exceptions, not even the mildest of proposals got a hearing. Nichols declined to comment through a spokesperson.
“It was all political theater,” said Drucilla Tigner, co-executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “We have one of the most extreme bans in the country with no exceptions, and it seems like that’s the way that they want it.”
John Seago, president of Texas Right to Life, said he didn’t expect these bills to get any traction and was glad to see he was right. But he considers that the “absolute bare minimum for this session.”
“From our perspective, defeating bad bills is not enough,” Seago said. “We’ve been pushing [the Legislature] to a higher goal of the enforcement issues.”
Conservative lawmakers filed bills that would further target illegal and out-of-state abortions, including bills that would have stopped tax credits from going to any company that offered to help its Texas-based employees travel out of state for an abortion.
Other bills homed in on abortion-inducing medication, allowing for lawsuits against anyone who manufactures, distributes, markets or even possesses the medication, or against the internet service providers hosting websites advertising the medication.
But much like the exception bills, these too have seen little movement this session.
“There definitely does not seem to be an appetite for these harder debates about really prosecuting these nefarious and innovative ways of promoting abortion in Texas,” Seago said.
The one abortion-related area that has gotten attention this session is the Alternatives to Abortion program, which provides state funding to private crisis pregnancy centers and other anti-abortion nonprofits.
The House and Senate have proposed allocating between $120 million and $140 million for the biennium to the program, an increase from the current $100 million allocation. The final reconciled budget has not yet been made public or approved by either chamber.
The Senate passed a bill proposed by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which would rebrand Alternatives to Abortion as the “The Thriving Texas Families Program” and formally move it into the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The version of that bill that passed the Senate removed the requirement that at least 75% of the funded programs provide evidence-based parenting programs. The House is still actively considering the legislation.
“Texas has seen a steady decline in abortions following the Dobbs decision in 2022. That means more resources are needed for mothers during their pregnancy and after their child is born,” Kolkhorst said in a statement. “Currently, the state offers a patchwork of separate programs to assist women during pregnancy, as well as help for early childhood and families in crisis. By coordinating services, we can work together to ensure that more people are served.”
Howard proposed a bill that would have required any informational materials distributed by these programs to be medically accurate and scientifically supported, and state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, proposed requiring these nonprofits to provide patient-navigator services for people dealing with significant fetal anomalies or medically complex pregnancies. Neither moved beyond committee.
“We still don’t have the metrics in place that show that it’s an effective program,” Howard said. “I personally believe we would get much more bang for the buck to put that money into women’s health programs.”
While abortion has largely taken a back seat, the Legislature has stayed busy on issues ranging from property taxes to immigration to efforts to ban drag shows and gender-affirming care for trans children.
For Tigner, it feels like the conservative culture wars have turned their attention from abortion to LGBTQ issues.
“They are absolutely the same people who are perpetrating harm against trans folks as they did against women and other people who can become pregnant,” Tigner said. “We’ll continue to see these political attacks as long as extremists are controlling our state.”