AUSTIN -- Approved by the state Senate after more than seven hours of debate Tuesday night, sweeping restrictions on abortion providers and abortion-inducing drugs are one step closer to becoming law.
"The bill includes significant protections for women's health and improves health and safety standards," Elizabeth Graham with Texas Right to Life told KVUE Wednesday. "It also holds abortion clinics to a higher level of health care standards so that women who regrettably may go through with that choice are protected."
Graham says the significance of Senate Bill 5, the omnibus abortion legislation authored by state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), can't be overstated.
"SB 5 is a very big deal for pro-lifers across Texas, for women's health and for the unborn," said Graham. "The last time we saw a piece of legislation that has this big of an impact was in 2011 with the sonogram law and in 2003 with the women's right to know law. So we expect that Senate Bill 5 will have a very similar impact."
The legislation includes requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. It would also increase the dosage, overall price and restrictions on how abortion pill regimen RU-486 is prescribed and administered by requiring physicians to follow the final printed label guidelines issued in 2000 by U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Despite Hegar unexpectedly removing "fetal pain" legislation that would have restricted abortions performed after 20 weeks, abortion opponents are happy with the end result.
"The bill as passed is a strong bill, and if the House decides to put that part back in we would be elated, that would make it an even stronger bill," said Graham.
Senate Republicans argued their main purpose in passing SB 5 was to make abortions safer, but a message posted to social media site Twitter by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) sparked a wide range of reactions Wednesday morning.
"We fought to pass SB5 thru the Senate last night, & this is why! #StandWithTXChildren #txlege," Dewhurst posted along with a graphic
produced by Planned Parenthood claiming the bill would "essentially ban abortion statewide."
"When the spin of debate disappears in daylight, we see the true intent: deny women access, not improve safety," state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) posted in response, with a link to the original message. Dewhurst followed up his message two hours later with a post stating, "I am unapologetically pro-life AND a strong supporter of protecting women's heath. #SB5 does both. #txlege."
"It's not about women's quality of health and women's safety. If it was, I would be the biggest champion of these bills," said Austin gynecologist Christina Sebestyen, who owns a private practice in North Austin and sits on the local Planned Parenthood community board.
Sebestyen says part of the bill requiring abortion clinics adhere to the same facilities guidelines as ambulatory surgical centers doesn't make sense for the average abortion procedure.
"Ambulatory surgery centers are really meant for much larger surgical procedures such as laproscopic hysterectomies and large surgical procedures that require a very large room in which to place all the equipment, and a termination or abortion is what we call a suction DNC, and that requires very little equipment and can be done in quite a small space," said Sebestyen.
"In the ambulatory surgery center restrictions there are very expensive building code requirements that are very expensive to implement, and there's no safety improvement for this particular procedure in a larger room than in a smaller room," said Sebestyen, who warns only five clinics in Texas meet the requirements. "It's going to have a significant negative effect on access, which is probably the desired effect."
Republican senators argued Tuesday that abortion providers have the means to make the necessary changes if they believe doing so would guarantee continued business. A 20-10 vote split largely along party lines sent SB 5 to the state House, where a hearing is scheduled Thursday. Up for consideration will be the bill's House companion HB 60, as well as HB 16 restricting abortions after 20 weeks.
"We are pleased that the Senate has passed this common sense measure," said Joe Pojman with Texas Alliance for Life said in a statement Wednesday. "We believe the recent allegations against Houston abortion physician Douglas Karpen, along with conviction of Kermit Gosnell, highlight the urgent need for pro-life legislation to be passed quickly. We cannot allow these atrocities to continue for two more years when we have the opportunity to address them right now."
"Why else would a clinic that only dispenses medicine be required to become a full-scale surgical center? And how does limiting parking spaces translate into better medical care?" ACLU of Texas executive director Terri Burke said in a statement. "The bill has nothing to do with protecting women’s health, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agree. Politicians across the country need to stop insulting women’s intelligence with these invasive and purely political bills. The women of Texas, and across the country, deserve better.”
Meanwhile, the clock is counting down on the first called session of the 83rd Texas Legislature. Along with abortion, bills concerning redistricting, transportation funding and juvenile justice must all be passed before the 30-day special session expires next week.
"We can't always anticipate the political games that will happen behind the scenes," said Graham. "We are monitoring the clock very closely as well as procedural deadlines and responding to those concerns and moving as quickly as we can."