As State Abortion Fights Intensify, Texas Moves to Adopt Sonogram Bill

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AUSTIN -- Back in January, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that, along with a budget amendment and legislation to protect private property rights, he was also adding the so-called "sonogram bill" to a list of emergency items for the state's 82nd legislative session.

The controversial bill requires a woman seeking an abortion to allow a doctor to perform a sonogram, display "real time" images of the fetus and provide an explanation of those images -- including the "presence of arms, legs, external members and internal organs" -- then play a recording of a heartbeat, if there is one, and offer a list of agencies that offer alternatives to abortion. All of this would have to happen at least 24 hours before the procedure.

On Monday, that bill passed the floor of the Texas House of Representatives and headed for the Senate where, if it gets two thirds of the vote, it will become law and take immediate effect once Perry adds his signature, as he has pledged to do.

The Texas Senate has already approved a less-strict version of the sonogram bill, and while its sponsor, Sen. Dan Patrick, has said he won't accept the House version, its biggest difference is that it requires a two-hour waiting period before an abortion is carried out, rather than 24. Patrick's version also makes exceptions for women who are victims of incest or rape. A House-Senate conference committee would have to hammer out a compromise, but the feud isn't likely to delay its journey to the governor's desk for long.

The sonogram bill in Texas is part of a nationwide push by Republicans and conservative activists since the fall to restrict abortion rights, and is one of the most aggressive and successful recent moves at the state level.

In Ohio, Republicans have proposed to outlaw abortion after the first heartbeat is detected. In Idaho, the party wants legislation to stop health-insurance companies from covering abortion. In South Dakota, which does not even have any abortion providers based in the state, a bill was introduced which would require women seeking an abortion to face a three-day waiting period and attend counseling sessions designed to discourage them from going through with the procedure.

South Dakota is the same state that made news recently for considering a law aiming to expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings intended to prevent harm to a fetus -- which meant that it could become legal to murder doctors who perform abortions. That bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Jensen, would also have forced the doctor carrying out the procedure to inform the woman "that the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being," that she "has an existing relationship with that unborn human being," of the "statistically significant risk factors" including depression and suicide, and the "probable gestational age of the unborn child."

The South Dakota legislature decided to shelve that one indefinitely in February.

Currently Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi mandate that an abortion provider perform an ultrasound and offer a woman the opportunity to view the image before performing an abortion. Two other states -- Arizona and Florida -- require an ultrasound on each woman obtaining an abortion after her first trimester, and that providers offer her the opportunity to view the image.

Perry had used a pro-life rally in the Texan capital Austin, on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to announce support for the bill. "Emergency legislation allows the legislature to take fast action on this important bill because we know when it comes to saving lives, minutes count, days count," he told supporters.

Republican Rep. Sid Miller, a 55-year-old Deacon of Greens Creek Baptist Church -- as well as an elder at Erath County Cowboy Church, in Stephenville, Tex., where he lives -- sponsored the House bill, which he said was about informed consent for women.

The bill "requires that the sonogram be presented to the woman," he said in an interview with a fellow Republican posted to YouTube. "She'll have at least 24 hours to go home, think about it, pray about it, make sure of what she's doing -- because many of these women came back and testified in committee that if they'd only seen the sonogram -- they have really disturbed emotional problems later in life when they realize the consequences of what they've done."

Opposition to the bill in the Texas House was fairly dramatic, but ultimately futile. Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Democrat, reached into a grocery bag and pulled out a white plastic vaginal probe before describing in detail how it's used by physicians in transvaginal sonograms. "This is not the jelly on the belly that most of you think," she said. "This is government intrusion at its best." (How to do the sonograms will be left up to medical practitioners.)

One proposal from the Democrats suggested that if a woman decided against an abortion after being given the information by her doctor required in the bill, she could seek a court order mandating a vasectomy on the man who got her pregnant. That got cheers from both sides of the political divide.

Rochelle Tafolla, of Planned Parenthood, insisted the bill had nothing to do with women's health-care. "It really is all about shaming women and telling them they're not capable of making a personal medical decision on their own," she told one local news network.

But Democrats, advocacy groups and columnists were always fighting a losing battle, thanks to the makeup of the legislature. In November, Democrats lost 21 seats in the House to Republicans -- causing one local online newspaper to call it a "bloodbath." The GOP holds a supermajority in the statehouse.

While these battles at the state level heat up, the Obama administration has shelved a move abortion rights advocates say could shore up their side of the fight.

A year before his election, Obama announced he would sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would essentially codify Roe vs. Wade and prohibit federal, state and local governments from interfering with or restricting a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

But just three months after his inauguration, he told a news conference it was "not the highest legislative priority." Since then he's let the matter drop.

Drop-down thumbnail credit: dherrera_96/Flickr

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Alex Hannaford is a British journalist based in Texas, where he writes about human interest and political issues, religion, crime and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @AlHannaford and read more of his work at his website and blog.

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