House moves new abortion rules forward

March 4, 2011 4:17:30 AM PST
Democrats used procedural rules, dozens of amendments and lengthy debates Thursday, but failed to stop a measure requiring women in Texas to get a sonogram before ending a pregnancy, part of a nationwide push by Republicans and conservative activists to restrict abortion rights.

A vote in the Texas House to move the bill through the amendment phase succeeded on a 103-42 vote. All that remains is a simple procedural vote in that chamber, which is expected next week.

Gov. Rick Perry has made the proposed law a legislative "emergency," and passage in the Texas House, where Republicans hold 101 of 150 seats, is all but certain. During a debate Thursday afternoon, Democrats were nevertheless trying to derail it and highlight the intrusive and potentially humiliating nature of the legislation.

It would require many women who want an abortion -- even victims of sexual assault -- to have an ultrasound probe inserted into their uteruses at least 24 hours before the procedure. The method is used in early pregnancies, generally 10 weeks or less, opponents said.

State Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, carried an ultrasound wand onto the House floor during a debate Wednesday and in the debate on Thursday described in detail how it is used. "This is government intrusion at an all-time high," she concluded. Proponents did not dispute Alvarado's description of how the wand would be used in early-term pregnancies.

Her effort to gut the legislation failed on a 106-41 vote, a signal that the bill will pass easily. Seven Democrats, all from heavily Hispanic areas, joined with Republicans to keep the legislation intact. One Republican, Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston, opposed it. Another amendment designed to exempt victims of rape or incest from undergoing the sonogram went down on a 97-49 vote.

In a sign of trouble to come, the House also rejected a substitute bill that would have matched a less stringent version already passed in the Senate. The two versions of the bill must be reconciled before going to Perry for his signature.

Republicans point to a provision in the bill saying no woman or doctor will be penalized if the patient "chooses not to receive the information" required under the bill: the results from the sonogram, the sound of any fetal heartbeat and a description of the fetus, including whether it has limbs. Bill author Sid Miller, a GOP representative from central Texas, says women wanting an abortion must undergo the sonogram but could look away from the image and wear headphones to avoid hearing the heartbeat.

"They don't have to view it; they don't have to listen," Miller said.

Doctors who did not perform a sonogram before providing an abortion would lose their medical licenses.

The legislation is part of a push by Republicans across the nation, emboldened by their 2010 election gains, to enact abortion restrictions favored by their conservative base. The sonogram bill is the first substantive legislation to hit the House floor.

The Texas House deliberations come on the heels of abortion curbs passed this week in South Dakota. If Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard signs the legislation, women seeking an abortion there would face a three-day waiting period, believed to be the longest in the nation, along with mandatory counseling designed to discourage women from going through with the procedure.

Ohio Republicans, meanwhile, are testing the limits of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973 with proposed legislation to outlaw the procedure after the first detectable fetal heartbeat. In Idaho, Republicans are pushing legislation to ban state insurers -- set up under new federal health care exchanges -- from covering abortion as a medical expense. Congressional Republicans are going after family planning funding provided to low-income women by Planned Parenthood, a national nonprofit.

In Texas, the state Senate has already approved a less restrictive version of the sonogram measure. Any differences in the two measures would have to be worked out, passed by both chambers and then signed by the governor to become law.