newsPolitics

Texas House passes contentious ‘heartbeat bill’ restricting abortion

The bill would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and let private citizens sue abortion providers or anybody else who knowingly “aids or abets” an abortion in violation to the ban.

UPDATED on May 6, 2021 at 11:25 a.m. to reflect the House’s final passage.

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers are one step closer to passing a contentious bill that would ban abortions the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected.

One day after passing on second reading, the House granted final approval Thursday to the highly-debated bill that is loaded with other hotly contested provisions. It now heads to the Senate, where it has already passed, for final approval of the House’s changes.

Barring any objections from the Senate, it will be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has already made it known that he will sign it if it arrives at his desk.

The proposal from Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, which was carried in the House by Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women are aware they are pregnant.

But abortion rights advocates have flagged the “heartbeat bill” label as a “smoke screen” for another key provision that has resulted in hours of debate: The bill would allow private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone else who knowingly “aids or abets” a procedure that violates the ban. The measure includes an exception if the life of the woman is in danger, but not for rape or incest.

The debate featured several stark divides between abortion rights advocates and their opponents, including fundamental disagreements over science, faith and whether lawmakers should pass such a proposal. After heated back-and-forth with little to no common ground, the House granted final passage to SB 8 with a 83-64 vote.

“We’ve had this discussion way too many times since I’ve been here,” Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “This is the worst day of the session every single session, and this stuff keeps coming up. You guys know that there have always been abortions and there always will be.”

Slawson responded, “This is the best day for tens of thousands of unborn children in this state.”

“For far too long, abortion has meant the end of a beating heart, but through this –– the Texas Heartbeat Act –– that beautiful melody of a beating heart will mean the protection of those innocent unborn lives in Texas,” Slawson said later.

Slawson offered an amendment, which was adopted, that clarifies that a person who impregnated an abortion patient through rape, incest or sexual assault could not bring a lawsuit under the measure.

Opponents of the bill still voiced significant concern over the potential for frivolous lawsuits brought by any private citizen, not just Texans, against abortion providers and everybody else who falls under the category of intentionally aiding or abetting an abortion.

Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, asked for clarification of how intent would apply. Slawson said “intent” is a well-recognized legal principle, but when asked for a specific example, she said, “I don’t have an example prepared.”

Collier pressed on another provision that says the court shall award no less than $10,000 in statutory damages if the claimant prevails for each abortion performed in violation of the ban.

“Who gets the penalty money?” Collier said.

“The successful claimant in that cause of action,” Slawson said.

“Even though they have no relation, no other connection to the case, they can get money?” Collier said. “I mean it’s just like a lottery, basically.”

Over a dozen states have passed abortion bills of their own in an attempt to test the rightward tilt of the U.S. Supreme Court. Abortion opponents hold on to rejuvenated hope that restrictions will be upheld with three justices appointed by then-President Donald Trump now on the court.

Similar legislation in other states, except the most recent bills, has been either struck down or temporarily blocked. However, abortion opponents believe the Texas bill’s unique language, including its provision for civil action, could help it survive in court.

“Unlike those other states’ bills, this bill gives private actors the exclusive responsibility of enforcing the law through state causes of action,” said Rebecca Parma, senior legislative associate at Texas Right to Life. “And that’s the difference that we hope will help this bill stand where those other bills have been enjoined.”

In an open letter to House Speaker Dade Phelan and the full House, over 300 Texas lawyers said the bill creates an “unconstitutional restriction” on abortion.

The bill additionally contravenes the Texas Constitution, the letter says, and undermines “long standing rules and tenets of our civil legal system.”

‘Detectable heartbeat’

A lengthy exchange between Slawson and Howard, who is a former nurse, put on full display one of the many disagreements regarding the timeframe laid out in the bill, and on what the first detectable heartbeat represents.

Howard asked if there is a specific timeframe for when the abortion prohibition would take effect.

Slawson said it is measured by the “existence of a heartbeat,” which she said can be detected at six to 12 weeks of gestation.

Howard then referenced a 2019 statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG.

“What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically-induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops,” the statement reads. “Thus, ACOG does not use the term ‘heartbeat’ to describe these legislative bans on abortion because it is misleading language, out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy.”

The Associated Press also reported last week on the science behind the fetal heart’s development during pregnancy, stating that while advanced technology can detect the first “flutter” as early as six weeks, the embryo does not have a heart. Medical experts say the embryo becomes a fetus 11 weeks into the pregnancy, the AP reported.

Howard said the “flutter” sound that a Doppler fetal monitor delivers is not a “heartbeat” but an “amplified version of electrical signals.”

“I fundamentally disagree with that,” Slawson said.

“You’re telling me that the science is wrong because you don’t agree with it?” Howard said.

Slawson responded, “What I’m telling you is that when a beating heart represents a life within a womb, we have a duty to protect that innocent unborn life.”

While laying out the bill, Slawson explained that her mother had been encouraged to have an abortion when she was pregnant with her, because of developmental issues. Slawson said her mother ultimately decided to carry the pregnancy to term and delivered Slawson, who was completely healthy. She said that plays a role in her fight for the proposal.

Collier later opened up on the House floor also, explaining that she had gotten pregnant at age 15. As somebody on the track and cheer team, she said, she was afraid. After going to Planned Parenthood, she said, she ultimately decided against seeking an abortion.

This has affected her view of the bill and others like it, but placed her on the other side of the debate.

“We’re setting people up to fail by not giving them the option. … We are substituting our judgment, our moral opinion, on all of Texans,” Collier said. “We’re not giving them that choice. Even God gives us a choice.”

Collier added, “He gives us a mind to make those decisions for ourselves, and only God judges us. But today, the state Legislature is saying, ‘No, we’re going to tell you the right thing to do. We’re going to make that decision for you.’”

In This Story

Alex Briseno. Alex Briseño is covering politics in Austin for The Dallas Morning News. He was born in Seguin, Texas, and is a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. During his time at UT, Alex interned at Sports Illustrated, freelanced for newspapers across the state and spent four years at the student newspaper, The Daily Texan.

alex.briseno@dallasnews.com @alex__briseno
Politics

Get Political Points

Receive the latest political news delivered every Tuesday and Thursday from reporters in Austin, Dallas and Washington.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy