Following the 2013 passage of some of the most stringent controls on abortion in the country, Texas anti-abortion Republicans had been quiet this legislative session, focused on relatively small measures that have drawn little attention.
In defiance of his party’s leadership, state Rep. Matt Schaefer broke that quiet Thursday when he filed a bill amendment to ban abortions after 20 weeks even when a fetus shows signs of severe abnormalities and little hope of survival.
The measure, which the Republican from Tyler tacked onto a sweeping bill to streamline state health bureaucracy, prompted Democrats to attack the bill with technical objections. The bill’s author ultimately pulled the entire measure to keep it from dying on the House floor. But the tactic drew the support of a majority of legislators and is likely to be tried again.
The episode paled in comparison with last session’s abortion battle. But it also illustrated a subtle divide among Republicans, between those whose anti-abortion beliefs are absolute and others who are more willing to allow exceptions in extreme instances such as incest or severe disabilities.
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Members of both camps, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones noted, could jeopardize a re-election bid with a vote against perceived abortion restrictions, particularly in the most conservative districts.
“A large majority of the pro-life movement feels that they pushed the envelope about as far as they could push it with House Bill 2,” Jones said, referring to the 2013 abortion legislation. “The representatives had to take very seriously the fact that that vote would be utilized in further primary campaigns as an indicator of their commitment as a pro-lifer on abortion.”
Thursday’s debate showed that, despite his support from members of both parties, House Speaker Joe Straus’ control “is not absolute,” Jones said.
“In some ways the speaker lost a little control of the agenda,” he said. “What Rep. Schaefer did with the gambit was provide himself and others the opportunity to signal to primary voters they are 100 percent pro-life. I would say it’s much more symbolic than it was substantive.”
Reluctance was palpable in the chamber Thursday, where state Rep. Four Price, an anti-abortion Republican who authored House Bill 2510, urged other legislators to curb their politics to pass his otherwise innocuous bill designed to streamline state health services.
Among those backed in a corner was Republican state Rep. John Zerwas, a physician from Richmond, who voted against Schaefer’s rider, which nonetheless passed with 82 votes before being wiped from the bill once it was sent back to committee.
“It’s an unusual and very difficult situation when someone is carrying a nonviable fetus,” Zerwas said Friday. “You know it’s a very difficult circumstance for any parent to be in, a man or woman who is facing that decision.”
Matter of morality
But Schaefer said the issue isn’t a question of medical prudence, but rather one of morality.
“It is a heart-wrenching decision to know you have a baby that might not make it,” he told the American-Statesman. “But God values that life.”
Schaefer said he intends to bring the issue to a vote again, likely tacking it onto another of several bills that would work together to reorganize the state’s five health and human service agencies. The bills – born of more than a year of workshops – are commonly referred to as “Christmas trees,” because all kinds of other measures can be easily hung on them.
Schaefer, who was criticized for bypassing typical legislative procedures, said he had no choice but to slip his measure into the bill because a bill he filed to restrict such abortions was never given a hearing in committee.
“When you can’t get a hearing in committee, and you can’t get the issue to the floor of protecting disabled children inside their mothers, you take what’s available,” he said.
Though the effort is unlikely to gain the sort of momentum that was behind House Bill 2 — which led to the closure of more than two dozen abortion clinics, or about three-quarters of clinics in Texas over the past two years — abortion rights advocates say they are prepared to gather support in the House to quash any new restrictions.
“It’s clear that he was trying to circumvent the democratic process to attack families in a heart-breaking situation,” said Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.
Schaefer’s effort faces opposition from some anti-abortion Republicans because of his attempt to work around the committee process.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat known for employing arcane parliamentary rules to combat legislation, called a point of order that nearly killed Price’s bill, but not without working out a deal with Price, who salvaged the bill by sending it back to committee.
“There are people who are here to play the legislative game and hang on the fringes, and we can beat that,” Martinez Fischer said. “We can beat back any red-meat wedge issue.”