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Sweeping restrictions on Texas abortions focus on regulating the fetus

Texas lawmakers tried a new tactic when they advanced sweeping restrictions on abortion last week: Focus on the fetus.

On Saturday, the Texas House of Representatives passed expansive legislation outlawing dilation and evacuation, a common method for performing second-trimester abortions. The bill also requires that the fetal remains of abortions be buried or cremated, and bans the sale or donation of fetal tissue.


The bill’s emphasis on the fetus is a marked change from previous anti-abortion legislation. In past sessions, lawmakers opposed to abortion offered legislation that they said were aimed at protecting the health of women seeking abortions. Abortion rights groups dubbed these bills “TRAP laws” — short for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers — and argued that their regulations were much more onerous than medically necessary and designed to force clinics to shut down.

In 2013, Texas passed a law that required specific admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions and “ambulatory surgical standards” for clinics that require gurney-wide hallways and temperature controls, among other features. In response, abortion clinics across the state shut down.

But the Supreme Court struck down the law last summer, finding that it was likely to hurt, not improve, women’s access to safe abortion — also signaling to anti-abortion lawmakers that they needed to move away from focusing on women’s health in future legislation.

Still, despite a new-found focus on the fetus, many of the bill’s proposed provisions could still trigger legal battles. Though several states have also sought to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, also known as D&E, multiple court rulings have found that such bans are likely unconstitutional. Because dilation and evacuates are generally the safest way to perform a second-trimester abortion, abortion rights groups argue that banning them essentially amounts to banning all abortion past the first trimester.

And in January, a federal judge blocked a Texas rule requiring health care facilities to give fetal remains funeral rites, finding that the rule did not increase public health and was “100 percent political.”

While the bill’s passage was from far from narrow — passing 96-47 — the debate was decidedly heated. Republican state Rep. Stephanie Klick said dilation and evacuation abortions — which involve using medical implements to pull fetal tissue in pieces out of the womb — amount to “drawn and quartering.” And Democratic state Rep. Donna Howard, who teared up, called the bill “political interference in medicine at its worst.”

“Why don’t we stop passing unconstitutional laws for a change?” added state Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat.

A version of the bill already passed the Texas Senate but will have to return to that chamber for a final vote.