It’s About Power

It is a very warm summer day as people begin filing into the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Austin, Texas on June 13, 2013. I’m here early, so I have already filled out my witness card and submitted Secular Texas’ written testimony to the clerk. There are several people taking pictures, including me, because it is an interesting scene. The high ceiling boasts large chandeliers. They add superfluous light to the sun coming in from large windows on two sides of the balcony. People are chatting as they began to ring the chamber. The chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, Senator Jane Nelson, welcomes everyone and comments positively on how many people are here to testify.

However, the congenial atmosphere belies the reason so many people have come to give testimony on Senate bills 5, 13, 18, and 24 all of which relate to abortion regulation. Planned Parenthood is represented in force this day by women dressed in 1960s styled clothing. It feels like I accidentally wandered onto a movie set. They are smiling, being photographed, and seem to enjoy being in costume. But these ladies are not dressed like June Cleaver to feel glamorous. They, like me, are here because they are angry and fearful that the Texas legislature will pass yet another law that will interfere with their reproductive decisions. In 2011, Texas passed a bill that requires women to have a sonogram, transvaginally if necessary, to hear the heartbeat of the fetus before an abortion can be performed. There is no glamor in the testimony we are about to hear.

The hearing starts with the formal introduction of the bills. Then Sen. Royce West begins to question Sen. Glenn Hegar who introduced SB 5. This bill would make abortion illegal after twenty weeks. The premise of the bill is that there is scientific evidence that shows that a fetus can feel pain at twenty weeks. Similar bills have been introduced in other states and in Washington DC. Royce wants to know if Hegar understands that there are no findings in peer reviewed scientific research that a fetus can feel pain at twenty weeks. Hegar finally answers in the affirmative, but that there is also a “body of evidence”, he says, that suggests otherwise. Royce asks for specific examples. In fact, the research that is used to claim that fetuses are capable of feeling pain is actually research on reflex to noxious stimuli and doesn’t conclude a fetus can feel pain. Royce points out that one scientist has objected to the way his research has been misused to pass a similar bill in Arkansas, and that bill is now tied up in court. Hegar can only respond that there is a “body of evidence” he has submitted to the committee. He uses this phrase repeatedly, suggesting that the specifics of his research are either weak or non-existent. 

The hearing is getting dry, but the women have yet to testify. Royce also asks if Hegar is aware that a very similar bill passed in Arizona was just struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Hegar thinks that his bill is not the same as the Arizona bill, and should be reviewed on its own merits. Finally, Senator Judith Zaffirini asks Hegar why the psychological health of the mother is not included as an exception. Hegar’s answer is shocking. He says that a woman may very well commit suicide because she is denied an abortion, but that is not a serious enough reason to include exceptions for psychological health in the bill.

Finally, the people who will be affected by this legislation, the women of Texas, get a chance to speak. One woman affiliated with a national pro-life organization informs the committee that she supports the legislation because it is an effort to restrict abortion rights. “We are trying to limit access to abortion,” she says. There are no serious objections to this characterization of bills that have been touted as being about the safety of women in Texas. Another tells the senators that she had a back alley abortion in 1959 because her father got her pregnant. Suddenly, the 1960s costumes look different in the glare of her testimony. She can’t believe that, as a society, we are revisiting this issue in 2013. 

Then there is testimony from a woman that gets to the heart of the problem with SB 5. It is at the twenty week point in pregnancy that doctors are able to run tests and determine if the baby may have any serious health problems. Only 0.5% of abortions performed in Texas occur after twenty weeks. But of that 0.5%, most are informed decisions made by mothers and families based upon serious medical issues. This is why the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes this bill. Many congenital anomalies are not detectable prior to twenty weeks, and SB 5 would eliminate any ability to decide how to proceed in those cases.

These facts have been presented to the committee in the written testimony I have just submitted for Secular Texas. Despite this, despite Hegar’s less than convincing performance, despite the hundreds of women who have registered their opposition around Texas, and despite the testimony they are about to hear, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will vote these four bills out of committee for the consideration of the full Texas Senate the next day. And the reason why is as simple and straight forward as a thing can be. It is the insistence of these legislators that they have as much control as they can over women’s reproductive decisions. It’s about power.

The woman stands at the podium and recounts how she and her husband were informed after the twenty week point in her pregnancy that her baby would either be stillborn or would survive only a few minutes after delivery due to a terminal illness. She talks about how people would ask her about her pregnancy. When is the baby due? Is it a boy or a girl? The questions were so distressing to her knowing that her baby was dying that she eventually had to stay home to avoid them. She testifies that she and her husband, after struggling with this very personal decision, went to a Seton hospital and asked for her labor to be induced; but their request is refused because the baby will die. Finally, she goes to a specialist who agrees to stop the baby’s heart and induce her labor. This is a late term abortion. She talks about holding her stillborn child and wrapping it in a blanket. She is crying. I am crying. The senate chamber is silent.