Texas advances new abortion limits despite court defeats

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature late Friday advanced tough new limits on abortion- hitting back at a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer striking down most of the sweeping restrictions on the procedure that America's second-largest state approved four years ago.

The Texas House voted 96-47 on legislation that bans a commonly used second-trimester abortion procedure, known as dilation and evacuation, similar to laws that courts have blocked in Alabama, Oklahoma, Kansas and Louisiana. It further directed doctors performing the procedure in Texas to face felony charges.

Those contentious provisions were tacked onto a broader bill requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains from abortions, even though a federal judge has already blocked an existing state rule mandating the same thing.

The measure also bars sale or donation of fetal tissue, something GOP-majority legislatures around the country have sought since the release of heavily edited, secretly recorded videos shot inside Planned Parenthood clinics by an anti-abortion group in 2015. Federal law already prohibits sale of fetal tissue.

Final approval should come Saturday. The proposal previously cleared the state Senate, but will have to return there because the House so expanded its scope. That chamber is even more conservative, though, and passage should be easy.

The dilation and evacuation amendment bars physicians from using forceps or similar instruments on a live fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces. Abortion rights groups say that method is the country's safest abortion procedure in the second trimester and even some anti-abortion groups have opposed prohibiting it, fearing that will prompt future legal challenges. But Texas conservatives called it "barbaric" Friday.

"Drawn and quartering," said Fort Worth Republican Rep. Stephanie Klick, who attached the amendment to the bill. "That's essentially what we are doing to these unborn children."

Austin Democratic Rep. Donna Howard countered that banning the procedure would endanger pregnant women's lives.

"This is political interference in medicine at its worst," said Howard, who broke down in tears.

The bill reflects a change in strategy for Texas Republicans, who in previous years focused on the health of the mother in drafting anti-abortion legislation - but now are concentrating on the fetus.

In 2013, Texas approved one of the nation's strictest abortion laws, which supporters said would improve women's health. The law imposed costly building upgrades on abortion clinics while requiring doctors who perform them to have admitting privileges.

More than 20 Texas abortion clinics closed after the law passed. The U.S. Supreme Court voided much of that law and Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that it failed to offer "medical benefits" sufficient to justify the burdens placed on women. Three Texas abortion clinics have since reopened.

Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, head of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, predicted future legal challenges.

"Why don't we just stop passing unconstitutional laws for a change?" he asked Friday.

Meanwhile, Texas' health department already tried to implement state rules mandating burial or cremation of fetal remains from abortions and miscarriages - but those were blocked by a federal judge who said they had no medical benefit and were "purely politically."

Abortion rights activists contend the requirements are meant to increase the cost of abortion and further shame women undergoing them.

But supporters argue that mandating burial or cremation of fetal remains preserves human dignity. The Legislature is trying to codify the requirement in state law even as the legal challenge of the health department rules continue.