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Abortion Mini-Battle Erupts on Texas Senate Floor

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

It was another day for an innocuous bill gone bad in the Texas Senate today.

Sen. John Carona's (R-Dallas) SB 747 would establish a five-year demonstration project for women's health care services that would expand access to preventative health and family planning services for women by creating a Medicaid waiver program that would allow for the inclusion of more women. Additionally, the bill would allow the state to draw down more federal dollars toward that effort through a 90/10 funding match.

Then along came an amendment by Sen. Robert Deuell (R-Greenville) that turned the floor debate into a mini-battle relating to abortion.

Deuell's amendment provides that no entity that performs or promotes elective abortions or are affiliates of entities that perform or promote elective abortions can be contracted with as part of the project.

That brought several Democrat senators to their feet. Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (R-El Paso) questioned Deuell regarding his amendment, asking what effect the amendment would have on women's health services throughout the state.

"It shouldn't affect them at all," responded Deuell.

Shapleigh pointed out that an organization such as Planned Parenthood may have 2-3 percent of its service as abortion-related, while the rest are related to "basic women's health." Thus, he said, if contracts with Planned Parenthood are prohibited by the Deuell amendment, it would "dramatically" affect services not related to abortion for women. He noted that the project could include some 500,000 women. "If you took out those affected by your amendment, will the remaining clinics have the capacity to deal with those 500,000 women?" asked Shapleigh.

There are many other organizations that can participate in the program that can provide comprehensive health services, responded Deuell. He said the exclusion of Planned Parenthood and other entities that perform abortions will not affect comprehensive women's health services. Noting the purpose of the bill is to address comprehensive health care needs of women, Deuell said even with his amendment, the bill will pass and address those needs.

The amendment, charged Shapleigh, is "specifically and ideologically" addressed at one procedure, yet it will affect thousands of women in Texas.

"You miss the point," said Deuell, noting that health care for these women will be available in "many other venues that don't deal with abortions." He said access problems have nothing to do with his amendment.

Shapleigh told Deuell his amendment was "destroying the effect of this bill," and told him to consider the "net effect" on women's health in Texas.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) said the amendment is excepting the provision of emergency contraception. "Are providers now not able to talk about any contraception, or only in cases of rape or incest?" Deuell said the bill allows counseling except for emergency contraception. "Texans should not have to pay for abortion services and at the same time we want women to have this health care," he said.

Van De Putte argued about cases of rape or incest and whether a health care provider, under the Deuell amendment, would be allowed to advise clients about the "morning after" pill, which she described as "a contraception," and thus not abortion. "What do we tell those women who have been raped?"

Deuell said in those cases, a patient can still have that treatment and that conversation with a private physician, in an emergency room or with an emergency room physician with whom they come in contact.

Not every woman who is sexually assaulted goes to an emergency room, argued Van de Putte. She said they often have no other option than to go to federally funded facilities. "Women do seek help in clinics," she said. She said if the Deuell amendment passes, some providers cannot tell assault victims that they have an option such as a "morning after pill."

With similar questioning from Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), Deuell responded that the bill is intended to provide broad-based health care for women on Medicaid that don't now have those benefits. He said his fellow senators were engaging in a "philosophical discussion on a very small part of the bill." He said many had expressed concerns that state funds would go to entities that provide abortions. "We have to respect what taxpayers, and federal and state law say about providing abortions." He said many Texans do not want to provide money for such entities.

Deuell said abortion clinics do not provide comprehensive health care. "Abortion is not health care," he said. Saying the amendment's goal is to not provide money to entities that provide abortions, Whitmire responded that when that happens, large numbers of women across the state will be denied health services they need.

Stepping in to say the debate on the amendment "is not on point," Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) reiterated that the purpose of the bill is to create a demonstration project for women's health services that are preventive in nature and for family planning. "The amendment is not the problem in this bill," he said.

"You've cleverly left out the language of this amend which is the real target," said Shapleigh, saying that although this is a small demonstration project, it can grow and can eventually become the dominant health care program that could affect thousands of Texas women. "The issue is, does a woman in the state of Texas get to hear all the options with respect to contraception in an emergency room under the scenario of rape?" He said by denying the money to those entities, women are denied hearing about their options.

"That's an incorrect pretense," said Ogden, noting the bill provides for a demonstration project that has nothing to do with emergency room services or emergency counseling.

"It didn't until this amendment was injected into the debate," said Shapleigh. He said the amendment extends it to the emergency room. He said through the Deuell amendment, "it's a new universe that's affected by what this bill does."

"It does not prevent, does not prohibit, does not gag anybody with respect to counseling on that issue," argued Ogden. "It doesn't do it."

Deuell said he has to respect taxpayer money, offering that he personally believes life begins at conception and although he has a deep concern for women in situations involving sexual assault or unwanted pregnancies, he has to respect the wishes of taxpayers and the use of their tax dollars.

"This is truly about women's health care," said bill author Carona, adding that the federal matching funds will provide opportunities to do things "for the people who need it most."

"It is not about abortion," said Carona. He said passage of the bill is "critical" in that it provides for women who need health care, has a 90/10 federal match and has a positive fiscal impact for the state.

Despite the objections of the Democratic senators, the Deuell amendment was passed, with Carona choosing not to move the bill to passage to third reading.