The abortion war, always simmering at the Texas Legislature, rose in intensity this week with Republican-backed legislation to ban the procedure after 20 weeks of gestation and a House Democrat's effort to roll back a 24-hour waiting period approved in 2011 as part of the pre-abortion sonogram law.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said a 2012 survey of women seeking an abortion shows the waiting period placed an undue financial and psychological hardship without prompting them to change their minds about going through with the procedure.
"I think it's just ridiculous that we do things to women to manipulate their minds instead of trusting that they already have made a very difficult decision," Farrar said. "Health care for women in Texas has been highly politicized. The Legislature needs to step away and have health care professionals ... make those decisions."
Farrar said she plans to file a bill this week to end the mandatory 24-hour wait for an abortion for all women who live within 100 miles of the nearest abortion clinic.
The bill, she acknowledged, has little chance of success in the Republican-dominated Legislature. The wider goal, Farrar said, was to educate her colleagues on the burden women face finding child care, arranging time off of work or school and getting transportation to meet the two-visit requirement, which the survey found added up to an average $146 in extra costs.
On the other side of the debate, the newly filed "Preborn Pain Bill" -- written in conjunction with Texas Right to Life -- cites peer-reviewed scientific studies concluding that a fetus can begin to feel pain at 20 weeks. Opponents dispute that conclusion, citing other, more prevalent studies that show a fetus cannot experience pain until far later in a pregnancy.
Gov. Rick Perry praised the identical bills filed Tuesday by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, and Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker.
"The state has a responsibility to prevent the needless suffering of our most vulnerable citizens," Perry said in a statement. "Texas has done a great deal of work over the last several years to nurture our culture of life, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect the lives of the unborn, until abortion is finally a thing of the past."
Texas law currently bans abortion in the third trimester of pregnancy except when the woman's physical or mental health is at risk or the fetus has a "severe and irreversible abnormality," according to the state health department. The third trimester generally begins around the 28th week of pregnancy.
Abortion opponents argue that an emerging consensus among medical experts indicates that a fetus can feel pain in the 20th week, providing an important "state interest" required by the U.S. Supreme Court for laws that limit access to abortion.
"This state interest will allow Texas the legal capacity to shield these preborn babies from inhumane and unnecessary pain," Hegar said.
Nationwide, 1.3 percent of abortions were performed after 20 weeks of gestation in 2009, the latest figures available, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For abortion opponents, the signature legislation from the 2011 session was a widely supported requirement for women to receive a sonogram, typically with a transvaginal probe, accompanied by a doctor's description to the woman about what the procedure revealed about the fetus.
The sonogram had to take place at least 24 hours before an abortion, and Perry and other supporters said they hoped the extra time and information would prompt women to back out of their scheduled abortion.
Farrar said her attempt to overturn the 24-hour waiting period was based on survey results from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a three-year initiative to study the impact of family planning budget cuts and abortion restrictions enacted in 2011. The effort is led by researchers with the University of Texas, University of Alabama-Birmingham and Ibis Reproductive Health, a California nonprofit that seeks to maintain and expand access to contraception and abortion.
The project surveyed 318 women who were seeking an abortion and recruited from clinic waiting rooms in Austin and five other cities from August to December 2012. (Twenty were interviewed by phone within two months of their abortion.)
-- 89 percent of women were confident or extremely confident in their decision to seek an abortion before the sonogram, and that level of confidence did not change during the 24-hour wait.
-- 31 percent said the wait had a negative emotional impact, 18 percent said it had a positive impact and 45 percent reported no impact.
-- The requirement for two clinic visits added an average cost of $146 beyond clinic fees for lost wages, child care and transportation for about half of the women surveyed.
-- The average wait between sonogram and abortion was 3.7 days, a delay typically attributed to clinic or personal schedules, job requirements and transportation difficulties.
-- The average drive to an abortion clinic was 42 miles. Only 5 percent were eligible for a two-hour waiting period between sonogram and abortion because the nearest abortion clinic was more than 100 miles from their home.
The survey provided welcome news for abortion opponents as well.
Preliminary data from several large abortion clinics found a 10 percent to 15 percent decline in the number of abortions in the first year of the sonogram law. The decline appeared to be in the number of women scheduling the first office visit for the sonogram, "not because women were changing their minds" afterward, said Dr. Daniel Grossman of Ibis Reproductive Health.
Information from additional clinics should provide a more complete picture of the decline in the next several months, he said.
Chuck Lindell writes for the Austin American-Statesman.
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