Across the state of Texas, public officials are watching the 82nd Legislature to find out when they’ll be forced to slash their budgets, and by how much, to accommodate a state financial shortfall that may be as much as $27 billion. Or, if we’re lucky, as little as $15 billion. Right now, the deficit is so huge and the books so complicated, nobody really knows what the final number will be.
In Dallas, where I live, the superintendent of schools recently told the Dallas Observer he may have to cut $260 million in funds for the education of area schoolchildren. He’s just got to wait and see what happens in the “lege.”
Meanwhile, down in Austin, the “lege” is dealing with an emergency. But it’s not a budget emergency. It’s not even a financial emergency at all. According to Governor Rick Perry, it’s an emergency that women in Texas are not asked to listen to a fetal heartbeat and have an abortion provider conduct a sonogram that they’ll describe to women in detail two hours before any abortion procedure.
Speaking before an anti-choice rally group at the Texas capitol on the 38th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, Perry told protestors:
“We can’t afford to give up the good fight until the day Roe v. Wade is nothing but a shameful footnote in our nation’s history books.”
Anti-choice legislators, led by influential Republican senator Dan Patrick whose Harris County District 7 is one of the wealthiest in the state, have jumped at this chance to push a bevy of abortion-related legislation in Texas this session, with multiple bills calling for pre-procedure sonograms, more calling to eliminate public funding for abortion and also demands to eliminate all public funding to anyone affiliated with abortion providers themselves. Other bills support Texans’ right to buy controversial “Choose Life” license plates, like these available in New Jersey.
But it’s the emergency thing that gets pro-choice activists here. Gov. Perry’s “emergency” designation permits the bills to be heard in the first 60 days of the session—they can’t be heard so early without it. How can medically unnecessary sonograms be an emergency in the face of a multi-billion budget shortfall and economic crisis?
“It never fails to amaze me what an unprincipled little political opportunist our governor is,” Sara Cleveland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas told me in a phone interview. “When it comes to interfering in women’s health, suddenly it’s an emergency.”
The sonogram legislation is currently in committee and hasn’t been heard on the legislature floor yet. But Gov. Perry’s “emergency” decree has ensured a woman’s right to choose will be addressed well before anyone gets around to that pesky budget thing. Cleveland said she sees the sonogram bills as “paternalistic and unfair,” considering women opt for abortions only “after much careful soul-searching and thought.”
For legislation that claims to be about “informed consent,” the sonogram bills tell women nothing they don’t already know. Said Cleveland:
“We’ve yet to find a woman who believes that if she’s going in for an abortion, that she’s not going to emerge un-pregnant.”
At Planned Parenthood of North Texas, director of public affairs Kelly Hart said the sonogram legislation is about “shaming women” and infringing upon a doctor’s ability to say, “this is what a woman needs to get ethical, quality medical care.”
It’s worth noting that none of the sonogram bills include exceptions for victims of rape or incest, which means women who are pregnant as a result of these crimes will be forced to comply with the laws if they pass. It’s little more than saying, “Let’s just kick a woman while she’s down,” said Hart.
Abortion rights activists hope to see some conservative in-fighting in the legislature since there are multiple versions of these bills floating around at present. Once a single bill is solidified, they say they’ll know how to fight it.
“When anti-choicers get their political ducks in a row,” said Sara Cleveland, “we’ll know better how to respond.”
In the meantime, the state’s economic and budget crisis will continue to take a back-burner to punishing women who seek abortions. And that, says Hart, is a “slap in the face to the families in Texas who are un- or under-employed” who would benefit from “emergency” legislation that helps them—and public entities like, say, school districts--stay afloat financially.