Texas Senate Passes Bill That May Close Abortion Clinics

The Texas Senate passed rules that advocates for access to abortion say may force most of the state’s clinics to close.

Backed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, the measure passed the Senate 20-10 yesterday at about 11:30 p.m. local time and now heads to the House of Representatives, where both sides say they expect it to win approval. Before the vote, lawmakers took out a provision to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill would require abortions to be done in ambulatory surgical centers by doctors with admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (50 kilometers) of their clinic. It continues a push in Republican-led states to limit when and how women can obtain abortions. Some measures, including bans after the 20th week of pregnancy passed in at least 10 states since 2010, are on hold pending legal challenges.

“I am trying to look at what can actually improve the quality of care and protect life and pass through the legislature during the next seven days,” Senator Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican who sponsored the measures, said on the floor.

Of 42 clinics in Texas, five meet surgical-center guidelines, according to Hegar. The state has more stringent requirements for the centers, compared with abortion clinics, that cover heating and ventilation systems, employee hiring, room size and fire alarms.

Forced Closings

Clinics outside four metropolitan areas -- Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin -- would be forced to close unless owners renovate their facilities, said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Texas chapter.

It may be difficult for doctors at some clinics to obtain hospital admitting privileges. The Jackson Women’s Health Clinic in Mississippi, for example, the state’s only one, is challenging a similar law in court after no hospital would grant privileges to its doctors.

The Texas measure also effectively bans the procedure by telemedicine, in which doctors prescribe abortion-inducing drugs during telephone or video conferences, by requiring that the physician be physically present to examine the patient before writing the prescription.

It’s already difficult for Texas clinics to do this, after a law that took effect last year requiring doctors to show ultrasound images of the fetus to women seeking an abortion -- meaning the provider must be in the same room as the patient.

Safety Cited

Bill supporters, including the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, say the legislation protects women’s health by making abortion safer.

“These changes would be a tremendous raising of the level of care for women,” said Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, a group based in Austin that opposes abortion except to protect the mother’s life.

Providers say the rules are meant to close clinics by making it too expensive to comply. Since 2003, Texas has required abortions performed past 16 weeks of pregnancy to occur at an ambulatory center, Busby said.

The measure has overwhelming support in the House, where 95 of 150 members are Republicans, said Mark Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University in Houston who tracks the legislature.

Nine other states passed or amended laws in the past four years to require that abortions be performed at ambulatory centers, said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which researches reproductive health data. Seven states have approved laws requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

‘Reshape’ Landscape

“This bill will reshape the abortion landscape in Texas,” Nash said. “This would make it much more difficult for women to have access to women’s health care, because longer distances mean more time off for work and more challenges in arranging child care.”

A measure passed yesterday 228-196 in the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, mirroring the provision that was removed from the Texas bill. The federal measure would exempt survivors of rape and incest. Hegar said he took out the ban from his bill because it lacked enough support to pass.

Only 1.5 percent of abortions performed in the U.S. in 2006 were done after 20 weeks, according to Guttmacher Institute data. Almost a quarter, or 23 percent of 1,793 U.S. providers, offered them in 2008.

Texas legislators are meeting in a special session that concludes June 25 to consider abortion and other topics raised by Perry. A group of Republican moderates and Democrats had blocked abortion bills during the regular session that ended May 27, Jones said. Perry, an abortion opponent, forced a vote on the issue, Jones said.

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