Texas Senate panel weighs banning abortion in 2021
With the Texas Legislature set to convene in five weeks, an influential Senate committee met Tuesday to preview an aggressive agenda of bills designed to outlaw, or at least severely limit, abortion in Texas.
The Senate State Affairs Committee, the first stop of abortion-related legislation, can expect to be the catalyst for a concerted effort to "protect innocent human life," said Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.
"We hope to pass a whole lot of pro-life legislation this session," said Hughes, chairman of the committee.
Hughes said to expect a strong push to pass a "heartbeat bill," which would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected at around the sixth week of pregnancy — before many women know they are pregnant. Current Texas law bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
"Ten states have already passed heartbeat legislation. And, we have to confess, Texas should not have waited this long," he said.
State Affairs heard from three invited witnesses, all of them abortion opponents who testified via Zoom. No public testimony was taken Tuesday.
Diana Gómez, advocacy manager for the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas, called the hearing an echo chamber for conservatives.
"Republicans want to get away with attacking essential health care in the midst of a public health crisis without facing accountability from the Texans they serve," Gomez said, adding that "lawmakers should keep their focus on helping Texans who are struggling because of Republicans’ failure responding to this pandemic."
In Tuesday's hearing, John Seago, the legislative director for Texas Right to Life, said his organization will be pushing a three-part bill that would ban abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected and close a "loophole" that allows for late-term abortions in the event of a severe fetal disease or disability that is likely to result in a child’s death soon after birth.
The third part of the "Texas abolition strategy" would set a date for the end of "all elective abortions," he said.
"This is the right time for us to be bold as a state," said Seago, noting that the new 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to be open to overturning, or at least limiting, earlier rulings that established the right to abortion.
Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, testified that his organization will be pushing the Human Life Protection Act, which would set "a complete ban on abortion beginning at fertilization" if allowed by the Supreme Court.
If the high court chisels away at abortion rights, perhaps by approving Mississippi's currently challenged law ending abortion at 15 weeks, the act would implement the 15-week ban in Texas, Pojman said.
"Texas needs a law to ban abortions to the extent allowable," he told the committee.
Until the Supreme Court acts, heartbeat bills and other legislation to severely limit when abortions are allowed will continue to be overturned by lower courts, "saving no lives," Pojman said.
The committee also heard invited testimony on another wish-list item for Republicans — blocking cities and counties from hiring lobbyists to represent them before the Legislature.
Local governments oppose the change, saying lobbyists and associations like the Texas Municipal League make it possible to track and try to influence the many bills that affect city and county residents.
Republicans in the Legislature, however, argue that the lobbyists work against taxpayer interests because they are paid with tax money to oppose GOP-led efforts on property taxes and other essential reforms.
The Senate passed a lobbying ban in 2019, but the effort died in the House.