Republican state lawmakers walked out of the 2021 legislative session to celebrate the passage of a new six-week abortion ban.
They cheered again last year when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing them to ban abortions almost completely, with no exceptions for rape or incest and only a small exemption when a mother’s life is at risk.
And then came campaign season.
GOP leaders have adopted a softer tone, appealing to centrist voters who could influence the outcome of the midterm elections. Some said they were open to a rape and incest exception, while Gov. Greg Abbott and others said they wanted to clarify laws to ensure doctors can treat patients with life-threatening pregnancies.
Now, in the middle of the 2023 legislative session, few Republicans are willing to touch the issue. Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to roll back some of the restrictions, and many of their GOP colleagues are instead leaning towards bipartisan proposals that bolster access to health care or help new parents. But even this has been controversial among some conservatives.
“They won a political victory, and pushing harder now might make them look extreme or highlight the fact that they’re out of step with most Texans on the abortion issue,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston. “Focusing on women’s health allows Republicans to soften the edges of controversial and divisive politics.”
More than 70% of Texans support access to legal abortion in cases of rape or incest, if the mother’s life is in serious danger or if there is a strong possibility of a serious birth defect. More than half support access in other circumstances, such as if a household is low-income or if someone would be a single parent, according to a February survey by the Texas Politics Project.
A change of rhetoric
A handful of Republicans, mostly more conservative members, have introduced bills to hold multiple parties accountable for helping someone get the procedure. Some have gone even further, targeting emergency contraceptives like Plan B.
State Senator Drew Springer, R-Muenster, introduced Bill 1440 in the Senate to hold credit card companies responsible for processing any abortion pill delivery transactions. This comes in addition to a law passed by the legislature two years ago making it a crime to prescribe the drug by mail.
She said bills like hers are part of the “cleanup” after the legislature passed abortion bans in 2021, because “we just don’t dream about how people are going to cheat the system.” Overall, she said, GOP lawmakers returned to Austin in January with the goal of “protecting what we’ve passed in previous sessions.”
As of Friday, only one bill filed and marked “abortion” had been scheduled for a committee hearing. It is Senate Bill 959, by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, that would prevent open enrollment charter schools from “giving taxpayer resources to abortion providers.”
Republicans in both houses are instead focusing on a list of bills that aim to strengthen some family services and expand health coverage for new mothers. In the House, State Rep. Toni Rose D-Dallas is advancing a bipartisan bill to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to 12 months after birth. It’s a priority bill for House Speaker Dade Phelan.
Rose introduced this legislation in the past three sessions, and the House passed it in 2021. But when she headed to the Senate, lawmakers pushed it back to six months, a provision that didn’t pass the federal government, formally leaving the 60 day policy. Meanwhile, low-income parents had access to continued postpartum Medicaid coverage through a COVID-19 federal public health emergency, but it will expire at the end of the month.
“Now that women in Texas will be required to go full term with their babies, we need to make sure they have the health care they need to have those babies,” Rose said, adding that she believes this is the session where the lawmakers “finally solve this problem”.
The proposal also appears to have bipartisan support in the Senate, though Rose said he wasn’t sure it would pass. The bill won broad support in a committee hearing Thursday, including from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Springer said she would support the measure.
In the upper house, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick prioritized Senate Bill 24, which would rename and expand the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program, which funds a network of crisis pregnancy centers across the state. They provide services such as counseling, prenatal care, parenting classes, and referrals to social programs.
Democrats have criticized the initiative for a lack of oversight, and several centers involved in it — often religiously affiliated — are notorious for providing medical misinformation about abortion. Few offer access to contraception.
The new legislation would codify the program and instead call it the Texas Pregnancy and Parenting Support Network. It has overwhelming support from GOP Senators and 10 have signed on as joint authors.
Senator Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville wants to provide paid parental leave to all state employees. Senate Bill 222 would guarantee six weeks of paid leave after childbirth, adoption of a child or having a child via surrogate, as well as two weeks of paid leave if the spouse has a child.
It was approved by committee last week and now goes on the Senate floor.
Blair Williams, the reproductive rights advocacy and policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, said the focus on family policies, while positive steps, ignores the larger issue at stake: “that people should have access to ‘abortion for whatever reason they are facing. ”
“To me, this is absolutely an attempt by Republicans to brand their brutal attacks on abortion as very pro-mother, pro-family rhetoric, which is just not how it works in real life,” she said.
Exceptions for rape and incest unlikely
Nichols and State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, are the only two remaining GOP senators who publicly backed a rape and incest plea last year, but neither pursued legislation to codify the change. . Their offices did not respond to requests for comment.
Abbott was the most high-profile Republican to suggest revising the ban to clarify that abortions are legal when the mother’s life is at risk. The law as written requires a “substantial” threat to a patient’s life or a fatal diagnosis to the fetus — but doctors across the state aren’t sure how to interpret that language, fearing criminal, financial and professional penalties if they go along with it. the procedure.
The situation has led to high-profile allegations — and now, a lawsuit — that Texans have been denied abortions despite having dangerous or unprofitable pregnancies.
“Our goal is to make sure we protect the lives of both the mother and the baby, and there have been too many allegations about the ways the mother’s lives are not being protected,” Abbott told WFAA in October. “This needs to be clarified.”
But the governor hasn’t raised the issue since being re-elected to a third term in November, and it was absent from his list of emergency issues for the legislative session. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
State Representative Mihaela Plesa, a Democrat whose Collin County district was one of the most competitive races in the last election, debated a GOP candidate last year who said she supported rape and incest exceptions. Other Republicans in close races, including some who won, have done the same.
Plesa wrote the bills for this session that would create exceptions for most children, women over 35 or with high-risk pregnancy conditions and IVF patients.
“No one has come to talk to me about this issue,” Plesa said. “They came to talk to me about other social issues. They want me to not honor gay and lesbian people, basically erase LGBT history, but they’re not willing to talk about the social issue of women dying in our state.”
Senator Borris Miles, D-Houston, and Senator Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, both filed bills clarifying that doctors should prioritize the mother’s life when assessing the need for an abortion.
Miles’ Senate Bill 2454 would institute a “good faith” requirement, making doctors immune from fines if they sincerely believe a patient needs an abortion. Plesa and Eckhardt are carrying accompanying bills that “would prioritize the health of a pregnant person over the health of the fetus…regardless of whether the treatment poses a risk of injury or death to the fetus.”
Eckhardt said some of his fellow Republicans have said the abortion ban has gone too far, even if they don’t say so publicly. He said their shift in tone to support more family and health policies is a strategic way to address some of these concerns.
“If it can be placed within the framework of preventing child pregnancy, or if it can be placed within the framework of protecting a mother’s health and family health, I think we have a chance of enough bipartisan support” to ease some of the laws more restrictive, he said.