Bush Gets Legislative Victory on Abortion
By Paul Duggan
After long and sometimes testy negotiations among legislators, the bill reached the House floor earlier this week but contained language that abortion foes said would have inhibited prosecution of abortion providers who violated the statute. Had it passed in that form -- as what abortion opponents called "an abortionist protection bill" -- Bush might have been faced with signing a measure that fell far short of what antiabortion leaders had hoped to achieve.
But the offending language was stripped from the bill Friday during more than four hours of often emotional debate, and after last-ditch efforts to amend the bill failed tonight, the governor's victory was assured. The Senate, which passed similar legislation in March, is likely to concur with the House version, sending it to Bush's desk.
"I commend . . . the Texas House for approving a strong and sound parental-notification bill," Bush said in a statement after the measure gained initial approval Friday night on a 111 to 30 vote. Similar notification bills have died in previous legislative sessions, and Bush, as he prepares to seek the presidency, did not want a repeat of those failures this year.
"I'm confident this legislation will reduce the number of abortions in Texas and will involve parents in this major decision of their minor daughters," Bush said.
Like some of his rivals for the GOP nomination, Bush has opted not to take a conspicuous stand against legalized abortion. While he favors outlawing abortion except in limited cases, Bush has said, Americans have not shown support for a constitutional amendment banning the practice.
Rather than alienating moderate voters by continuing to emphasize the divisive issue of an abortion ban, Bush has said, Republicans should focus on smaller, incremental steps to reduce the number of abortions. Although many antiabortion leaders appear willing to go along with that strategy, it has been criticized as a "retreat" by some GOP presidential hopefuls.
In fending off any suggestion that he is soft on abortion, it will help Bush, when he begins campaign travel next month, to have a legislative success he can point to as "pro-life," which is a reason he made passage of "a strong parental-notification bill" a priority.
"It's pretty obvious that he went to bat here to save babies' lives," Darla St. Martin, associate director of the National Right to Life Committee, said today, echoing others in the antiabortion movement. Bush "is not soft on abortion," she said. "He is a good pro-life candidate."
According to the state statistics, Texas physicians in 1997 performed 84,870 abortions, 5,523 of them on patients under age 18. Sen. Florence Shapiro (R), a sponsor of several failed parental-notification bills in past years, said Texas would join 39 other states in requiring parental involvement when juveniles seek abortions.
As the legislative session nears its May 31 adjournment, Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas specialist in presidential politics, said parental notification was "probably not all that terribly important as a piece of the [presidential campaign] puzzle" for Bush. Buchanan noted that Bush's tax-cutting and education proposals, scheduled for key legislative action in the next few days, will have a far larger bearing on his campaign.
Still, he said, "the issue of parental notification can't be trivialized. It's something [Bush] speaks about frequently, and it's something he's held out to that [right] wing of the party. And anything he fails to do that he said he wanted to do is going to be ammunition" against him.
Under the Senate bill, which passed March 17, physicians would have to notify parents of juveniles in person, by telephone or by mail before performing abortions. It would mandate a 48-hour waiting period after the notice or after the letter is mailed. But it would not require parental consent, nor would an abortion have to be delayed beyond 48 hours if the letter went unanswered.
It also would allow for a "judicial bypass," meaning notification would not be required if the patient convinced a judge that she was mature enough to make the decision herself. Activists on both sides of the issue said such a provision is constitutionally necessary.
But after weeks of negotiations between House GOP and a few key Democrats, a similar bill in the House emerged from a committee May 14 with provisions that angered abortion foes. A coalition of eight Texas antiabortion groups declared that it would "consider a vote in favor of this language to be a pro-abortion vote."
Besides including a definition of abortion that opponents said could render the law unconstitutional, abortion foes said the disputed House bill would have all but immunized physicians from criminal liability if they violated the statute. After hours of debate Friday and today, however, the House proposal wound up more in line with the Senate bill, and in some ways tougher. And Bush was able to declare victory.
"I think he's walking a very fine line between getting the nomination and running for the presidency," said Rep. Patricia Gray (D), who unsuccessfully tried to soften the bill with language favored by abortion rights proponents. Noting that the governor "is trying to appease" GOP primary voters without alienating moderate swing voters in the general election, Gray offered Bush some unsolicited political advice, saying he should stop fretting about hard-line abortion foes because, no matter what he does, he will not be their first choice for president.
"Of course, that's easy for me to say," Gray added, laughing. "I mean, I could be Mother Teresa and they'd never support me."
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