The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas bill would make it possible to put women to death for having abortions

Antiabortion activists protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington in January. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Men and women, young and old, native Texans and immigrants, they rose to ask lawmakers to protect life, describing a “genocide” and foreseeing the arrival of “God’s wrath.”

The act of public atonement they are seeking is passage of a bill that would criminalize abortion without exception, and make it possible to convict women who undergo the procedure of homicide, which can carry the death penalty in Texas. Though it faces steep odds of becoming law, the measure earned a hearing this week amid a larger legislative push in GOP-controlled states to curtail abortion rights, in a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

The legislation is the brainchild of state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, Tex., who was placed under state protection because of death threats he received when he first introduced the bill in 2017. The Air Force veteran, who has been married five times, argues that the measure is necessary to make women “more personally responsible.” He said Tuesday that his intention is to guarantee “equal protection” for life inside and "outside the womb.”

Some of his supporters see the issue in even more fateful terms.

“God’s word says, ‘He who sheds man’s blood, by man — the civil government — his blood will be shed,’” said Sonya Gonnella, quoting the Book of Genesis and asking lawmakers to “repent with us.”

Announcing herself as a “follower of the lord Jesus Christ,” Gonnella was among hundreds of people who testified in a marathon hearing that stretched from Monday into early Tuesday before the Texas House’s Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.

It was the first time in the state’s history, committee members said, that public testimony had been heard on a measure holding women criminally liable for their abortions. The legislation was left pending on Tuesday, as Democrats claimed there was a contradiction in the agenda advanced by its supporters, who call themselves “pro-life.”

“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,” said state Rep. Victoria Neave, a Democrat who represents part of Dallas County.

The Post’s Robert Barnes analyzes how states are passing laws restricting abortion rights and testing how the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority decides. (Video: Luis Velarde, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

A number of hurdles stand in the way of the legislation, including the reluctance of the committee’s chairman, Republican Jeff Leach, to bring it to the full House. Even some antiabortion groups, such as Texans for Life, oppose the severe changes to the state’s criminal laws.

Yet, the fact that the measure, which did not get a hearing in 2017, is now being entertained in Austin is a testament to new zeal behind the campaign to roll back abortion rights. Enthusiasm for the antiabortion cause was evident as well in the surprise box office success of the film “Unplanned,” which paints a dark picture of Planned Parenthood and other groups that defend abortion rights. The White House is screening a film with a similar message on Friday, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

In Texas, which has already advanced legislation punishing doctors who fail to try to save the lives of infants born after attempted abortions, the battle lines have been clearly drawn. Republican lawmakers describe the initiatives to prevent abortions in later trimesters as the “anti-New York” bills, a response to a measure signed into law in January by Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that critics falsely claim strips medical care from infants born alive during procedures, which happens extremely rarely.

The emotional showdown in Texas came amid a broader effort, in states where Republicans enjoy legislative control, to impose sweeping new restrictions on abortion rights. From Georgia to Ohio, from Florida to West Virginia, about a dozen states have moved on legislation banning abortion once a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat.

Some states are intent on taking additional steps. Last week, legislation was introduced in Alabama that would criminalize performing an abortion at any stage, with the only exception being a threat to the mother’s life. The effort is aimed squarely at Roe v. Wade.

That the Texas bill, which goes even further, is a clear violation of the 1973 landmark decision appears to be precisely the point for those who asked lawmakers to advance it out of committee. The measure directs authorities to enforce its requirements “regardless of any contrary federal law, executive order, or court decision.” In testimony, proponents hailed President Trump as a champion of the “unborn” and beseeched state lawmakers to do their part in giving him a “chance” to help advance their agenda before a Supreme Court whose makeup he has shifted to the right.

Roe v. Wade is unconstitutional,” said Jim Baxa, president of West Texans for Life. “And the 10th Amendment puts it to you all to stand up to that tyranny and do what’s right.”

Baxa said the bill was his organization’s “number one priority” because it was the first to treat abortion fully as a capital felony, giving those who claim to “believe abortion is murder” a chance to “prove that.”

“A woman who has committed murder should be charged with murder,” he affirmed.

Stephen Bratton, a pastor from Houston, sounded a similar note. “Whoever authorizes or commits murder is guilty,” the religious leader said.

In all, 446 witnesses registered their approval for the bill. Mainly representing faith groups and local arms of the GOP, they told lawmakers they would have to account for their actions before their “creator” as well as before their voters. The “pro-life” label wouldn’t protect them, said a GOP precinct chair, Cassandra Weaver, in a prophecy for the committee’s Republicans, some of whom have been reluctant to endorse the legislation. Voters, she said, “think that you’ve come into this office because you are trying to end abortion.”

Faith wasn’t the only justification offered for the bill. “We are literally missing billions of dollars in taxpayer money,” one woman said, suggesting that preventing abortion would increase the state’s population, meaning more people contributing to public coffers.

Speaking in opposition were 54 people, among them business leaders, women’s rights activists and legal experts.

“Murdering your citizens for a medical procedure is pretty extreme to me,” said Caroline Caselli, a technology CEO recently transplanted from California, who said she feared for her female employees.

Drucilla Tigner, a strategist for the ACLU of Texas, observed bluntly that the legislation was unconstitutional and would be invalidated, while Jasmine Wang, a legislative and legal intern with the abortion rights organization NARAL, said the hearing was a “waste of time.” She accused the Republican majority of showing “blatant disregard for the proper practice of medicine.”

That claim appeared to irk the committee’s chairman. Leach, who represents a swath of Collin County in North Texas, said he was committed to giving each bill introduced by a member a hearing before the committee. And he challenged Wang to say at what interval she was no longer comfortable with a woman terminating her pregnancy.

Wang refused to say, objecting, “Representative Leach, respectfully,” to which he rejoined, “Chairman Leach,” instructing the intern to acknowledge his title.

The hearing was celebrated by committee members as an illustration of the democratic process.

“The Texas legislature still works,” Leach said, commending his colleagues and the residents who had filled the committee room, as well as an overflow area, to provide testimony.

Tinderholt agreed, saying he was “honored” that his proposal had generated so much interest.

“I think we set an example for Washington, D.C.,” he concluded.

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