Politics
2:48 pm
Mon May 2, 2011

Abortion Sonogram Bill Clears Another Hurdle

Senate lawmakers have tentatively passed a controversial measure to require women seeking abortions to receive sonograms — and have the details of the fetus described to them — prior to the procedure. Pending a final vote tomorrow, the bill will head back to the House so the lower chamber can sign off on the Senate's changes. 

The vote on House Bill 15 came after compromise was reached on the biggest point of contention — whether women seeking abortions should be required to have a sonogram 24 hours in advance, or two hours in advance. Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who has the largest district geographically, feared a 24-hour waiting period would be a hardship for rural women living in his district. He agreed to uphold the 24-hour waiting period approved by the House, as long as women who live at least 100 miles away from the nearest abortion provider, or live in counties with a population of 60,000 or less, are given a 2-hour waiting period. (Nearly 94 percent of Texas women live in counties with more than 60,000 people.)

The bill has undergone some transformations — and much floor debate — since the original House version by Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, and the Senate version by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, were introduced. But that didn't stop Senate Democrats for fighting it tooth and nail on Monday.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, argued that many urban women — not just rural women — have transportation problems that should preclude a 24-hour waiting period. "If we're going to create a carveout, there has to be some rational reason for the carveout," she said. "Why haven't we considered a variety of other hardships?" 

Davis alleged the purpose of the bill "is to traumatize women." Patrick fired back: "You know me better than that."

Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, said the bill is primarily about women's health — but also about making sure rash decisions aren't made. "It's to give the child that one last chance at life, and perhaps prevent remorse on the part of that mother at a later date," he said. 

Here are the terms of the House bill, tweaked by the Senate, that got early approval today. 

  • A physician or trained assistant must perform a sonogram at least 24-hours before a woman can have an abortion. Women in rural counties, or who live more than 100 miles from a licensed abortion provider, are exempted from the 24-hour waiting period, and are only required to wait 2 hours before they can have an abortion.
  • At the initial sonogram visit, a physician or trained assistant must give a simple description of the physical development of the embryo or fetus, including the presence of fingers, toes or internal organs. They must also show the woman images from the sonogram and play her audio of the heartbeat. 
  • Women can refuse to listen to the heartbeat or view the images by signing a waiver saying, “I understand that I have the option” to see the images and hear the heartbeat. But unless the woman is a victim of sexual assault, a minor, or the fetus has a physical abnormality, she cannot refuse to listen to the description of the fetus’s development.
  • Medical emergencies are the only exception to the law.
  • The Department of State Health Services will be required to inspect abortion providers to ensure compliance. The measure also requires the Texas Medical Board to revoke a physician’s license if he or she is caught in violation of the informed consent law.
  • Information the physician or a trained assistant must provide includes: potential medical and health risks for the woman and the embryo or fetus, a list of agencies that offer prenatal health care services or emergency contraceptive, and materials on the legal liability of a father.
  • If the woman chooses to forgo an abortion after the initial sonogram, the provider must give her additional information on the legal processes of establishing paternity and obtaining child support. The provider must also provide a list of adoption agencies near her, and agencies (that do not offer abortion services or refer patients to abortion clinics, but do) provide free sonograms or other prenatal health services.

The bill must get final approval in the Senate, then head back to the more conservative House for an OK before it moves either to conference committee or to the governor's desk. Though Miller said last week that the House isn't crazy about the waiting period carveout for rural areas, he wouldn't say it was a deal-breaker. He said the Senate substitute includes "90 percent" of the more restrictive House language. 

At this point, Miller said last week, "I just want the Senate to send me something back so we can see if the House supports it."