Texas Republican proposes death penalty for women who have abortions

It would allow no exceptions for abortions in cases of rape or incest or when the health of the mother is at risk

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 11 April 2019 13:36 BST
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The state’s current penal code bars abortion from being deemed homicide or assault but the deeply controversial bill would remove those sections of the code
The state’s current penal code bars abortion from being deemed homicide or assault but the deeply controversial bill would remove those sections of the code (Getty )

Texas is proposing a law that would criminalise abortions and make it possible for women to receive the death penalty for having an abortion.

Abortion is currently legal in the US state, but the deeply controversial bill seeks to classify it as a penal offence.

The legislation, which would criminalise both women who have abortions and doctors who carry them out, stipulates that state and local government officials should enforce the bill “regardless of any contrary federal law, executive order, or court decision”.

It would allow no exceptions for abortions in cases of rape, incest or when the health of the mother is at risk.

But the bill appeared to have failed by Wednesday night – with the Republican state representative who allowed a hearing on the legislation announcing his opposition to it.

However, the fact that the measure, which did not get a hearing in 2017, was pondered over in Austin is indicative of the mounting pressure to roll back reproductive rights during Donald Trump's tenure.

Tony Tinderholt, the bill’s architect, introduced the “Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act” in January to “protect the rights of an unborn child”, but it was granted its first committee hearing this week. He introduced a similar bill in 2017, but it failed to leave committee.

“If somebody kills a pregnant woman, they are currently charged with double homicide,” the Republican representative, an Air Force veteran, said at the hearing. “This standard is applied throughout the code with the only exceptions being for women, doctors and medical professionals who intentionally end the lives of unborn children.”

Mr Tinderholt, who has been married five times, argues that the measure is necessary to make women “more personally responsible.” He said his aim is to guarantee “equal protection” for life inside and “outside the womb.”

But the bill faced substantial backlash and 54 people, who included women’s rights, legal experts and business leaders, spoke out against it at the hearing.

Victoria Neave, a Democrat who represents part of Dallas County, said: “I’m trying to reconcile in my head the arguments that I heard tonight about how essentially one is okay with subjecting a woman to the death penalty for the exact – to do to her the exact same thing that one is alleging she is doing to a child”.

The lengthy hearing stretched from Monday into early Tuesday before the Texas House’s Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence. Committee members said it was the first time in the state’s history that public testimony had been heard on a measure which makes women criminally liable for their abortions.

Jeff Leach, the representative who allowed a hearing on the bill, said that although he passionately identifies as “pro-life”, he believed this bill would shift the cause in the “wrong direction.”

“My commitment to advancing the pro-life cause is stronger than ever and that’s why I cannot in good conscience support House Bill 896,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

He added: “Trusted pro-life legislators and advocates agree with me that this bill moves our state and the pro-life cause in the wrong direction and it will not be advanced.”

A total of 446 witnesses – predominantly representing faith groups and local arms of the Republican Party – registered their approval for the legislation.

In testimony, supporters of the bill saluted Mr Trump - who rights organisations have accused of waging a war on women’s reproductive rights – as a champion of the “unborn”.

Last week, legislation was introduced in Alabama that would make carrying out an abortion at any stage of the pregnancy punishable by 10 to 99 years in jail.

The strict abortion ban, which has been branded a “death sentence for women”, would even criminalise performing abortions in cases of rape and incest. The legislation would only allow abortions in instances where there is “a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother”.

The bill, which has more than 60 co-sponsors in the 105-member Alabama house of representatives, also equates legalised abortion to some of history’s gravest atrocities – likening having your pregnancy terminated to the Nazi campaign of extermination that led to the mass murders of Jews and others during the Holocaust.

The bill means a doctor would be hit with a Class A felony if they were to perform an abortion. It would ban all abortions, even those using prescription drugs, as soon as a woman is “known to be pregnant”.

“It simply criminalises abortion,” Terri Collins, a Republican representative who is the bill’s sponsor, said. “Hopefully, it takes it all the way to the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade."

Pressed about pushing a measure that obviously conflicts with Supreme Court decisions, Ms Collins said the “whole point is to get the courts to relook at this issue”.

Alarm bells have been raised that Roe v Wade – the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – could be overturned or radically undermined with new conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Abortion opponents in other states have been emboldened to attempt to provoke new legal battles that could spark Supreme Court justices to revisit the key case. But critics argue the Republicans are unnecessarily launching legal battles that will prove to be expensive and futile – with taxpayers potentially footing the bill.

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