Saturday, May 18, 2019

Texas House advances bill banning cities from partnering with Planned Parenthood on any services

By Arya Sundaram

Texas and its local governments would no longer be able to partner with abortion providers or their affiliates — even for services like sexual health education and pregnancy prevention initiatives — under a bill the Texas House passed in a preliminary vote late Friday after hours of emotional debate.

Senate Bill 22, which critics call the biggest threat to Planned Parenthood this legislative session, would forbid a government entity from transferring money to an abortion provider, even for services not related to the procedure. It would also bar a transfer of goods or services and any transactions that offers the provider “something of value derived from state or local tax revenue.” Abortion rights advocates fear that the bill could even prohibit privately funded programs held on government property, like pop-up sexual health education booths at community colleges.

The controversial bill dominated the lower chamber's agenda Friday for more than seven hours and tentatively passed in an 81 to 65 vote.

“This is a taxpayer protection bill,” said Rep. Candy Noble, R-Allen. “Taxpayers who oppose abortion should not have to see their tax dollars subsidizing the abortion industry.” 

The bill needs one more vote in the lower chamber before it heads back to the Republican-controlled Senate. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, added an amendment that clarifies the bill would not restrict a city or county from banning abortions. If the upper chamber agrees with that change, the bill will then head to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

The bill would also apply to an affiliate of an abortion provider, so no Planned Parenthood clinic could partner with a local government — even clinics that don’t provide abortions. That would include programs like one in Dallas County where Planned Parenthood staffers have provided sexual health education, including information on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, at juvenile detention centers.

Abortion-rights advocates and several Democrats lambasted the bill.

“Senate Bill 22 has nothing to do with impacting abortion services,” said Gina Hinojosa, D- Austin, at a press conference. “What Senate Bill 22 does is take aim at the routine and lifesaving healthcare services offered by Planned Parenthood.”

There were several attempts by Democrats to amend the bill — but the endeavors ultimately failed. Of the 23 attempted amendments, only Stickland's was successful.

The state has slashed much of its funding for abortion providers in the last decade — but SB 22 would also cut local funding. Abortion opponents say the bill is critical because, although government money can’t fund the procedure, money funneled to abortion providers could be used to boost an organization’s operations in other key ways, like funding advertisements or opening a new clinic. Some abortion opponents argue that even when no money is exchanged, local partnerships with abortion providers offer the clinics a “free advertisement” and “free customer base.”

Bill supporters have singled out a key target of SB 22: Planned Parenthood’s $1-per-year lease for its East Austin clinic, which abortion opponents have railed against as a “sweetheart rent deal” with the city.

“By even giving them $5 for a non-controversial service, the state is endorsing what they do,” said John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion group in support of the bill. 

But the bill's impact wouldn't be specific to Austin. More than 30 local officials across the state released a letter to House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urging him to stop the advance of SB 22 in late April. Planned Parenthood partners with Texas cities and counties to provide services like HIV testing, teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, and breast and cervical cancer screenings — along with assistance in public health crises. During the 2016 Zika outbreak, the Harris County Health Department provided mosquito repellent and prevention brochures to Planned Parenthood patients. After Hurricane Harvey, Houston city government offices distributed vouchers for no-cost care at local Planned Parenthood clinics.

Opponents of the bill say providers like Planned Parenthood are an integral part of the healthcare safety net for low-income residents in a state that has the highest rate of uninsured adults in the country. Furthermore, they say low-cost and free reproductive health services are especially critical given Texas’ high rate of teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted diseases. Cutting off birth control services, they argue, could even drive up abortion rates. And many bill opponents called the measure “an attack on local control.”

As the Texas legislature has rolled back funding for abortion providers, lawmakers have boosted funding for state-run programs like Healthy Texas Women, which provides free or low-cost family planning services. Bill supporters hope to divert women away from abortions clinics and their affiliates and instead direct them toward these state-run alternatives. 

But abortion rights advocates argue that such programs are ineffective because they don’t reach enough people. Almost half of the approximately 5,400 Healthy Texas Women providers saw no patients in the 2017 budget year, according to the Texas Observer. If less women can access reproductive health care, some lawmakers unsuccessfully argued, abortion rates would ultimately rise.

“We don’t have the critical programs needed to fill the gap if Senate Bill 22 is enacted,” said Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who opposed the bill.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune.

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