AUSTIN — Women seeking abortions in Texas would have to get outside counseling first under a bill the Texas Senate passed Thursday.
The bill was given initial approval on Thursday by a vote of 21-10 with Sens. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and Judith Zaffirni, D-Laredo, joining the Republican majority. On Friday, the bill finally passed 20-10 with Zaffirini again crossing the aisle; Lucio was absent. It now heads to the Texas House for further debate.
Senate Bill 2243 would require women to receive pre-abortion counseling from an individual not employed by an abortion provider. The counseling would also screen the women for family violence, “coercion of abortion” and human trafficking. Sen. Angela Paxton, the bill’s sponsor, said the measure was meant “to provide support to women when they go through the decision-making process for perhaps one of the most challenging things that they’ll face their entire lives.”
She also told the story of one woman who “felt very alone, disconnected, fearful, unsure of what help or hope there was for her,” she said.
“I know this story because this woman was my birth mother,” said Paxton, R-McKinney, who was adopted. “And we can only imagine how many women go through a similar circumstance.”
The bill would cost the state $1.9 million a year to cover each expected one-hour counseling session at a projected cost of $72. That funding would come from the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” fund, Paxton said.
Several Democrats questioned Paxton about the steps women in Texas are already required to go through before getting an abortion, including two trips to the clinic on two different days, looking at a sonogram and receiving information from the state about abortion, child care and the stages of fetal development.
“It just seems like it’s an extra step,” said Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio.
Paxton responded that “the intention of this is aimed at helping a woman connect with resources to help her, and there’s nothing in the intent to do that.”
Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, also raised concerns about the information the state provides women, citing a Rutgers University study that said more than a third of the information in Texas’ “Right to Know” brochure is medically inaccurate.
“I will walk through with you the process of making sure that that previously published information is made correct,” Paxton promised Alvarado,” because no woman should be getting incorrect information.”
The Rutgers researchers found factual flaws in a draft version of the Texas pamphlet. This April, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission stood by the final version, saying in an email that the agency took to heart feedback fielded before its publication. Carrie Williams further said: “Our focus was on making sure the booklet is helpful, user friendly and medically accurate, and we carefully studied the medical and scientific research available to us along the way. In the end, it’s about making sure pregnant women have the information they need to make decisions that are right for them.”
On Thursday, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, repeatedly asked whether the bill means to require a woman to have “completed” her counseling to be certified to get an abortion. What does that mean, and who determines when the conversation is over, he asked.
That will be “dictated” by the commission, Paxton said, adding, “Just as when you and I finish a conversation, one of us has walked away or both of us have walked away.”
After conferring with her staff, Paxton added, “‘Completing’ is participating, but it isn’t optional.”
Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, also spoke against the bill.
“I take seriously the right of women to determine their own lives,” Johnson said. “It may be a dangerous expansion of state power.”
Paxton agreed to accept a change offered by Menéndez, which would require the counselor to provide the certification “not later than one business day or as soon as practicable after the women’s initial appointment.”
But she declined a second change he offered to require the counselor to be licensed, or be a registered nurse, physician or “other health care professional.” That amendment failed by a 20-11 vote, with Lucio crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans against the change.
The bill’s passage into law is not assured. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen referred its companion bill to the Public Health Committee chaired by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, an abortion rights supporter.
Thompson has not yet had a hearing on SB 24, which would tighten a 2003 requirement that abortion providers counsel women before the procedure and pass along state-written information.
The legislative session ends May 27.