Taking Aim at Abortion, Texas Republicans Want Attorneys to Represent Fetuses

Texas Republican legislators are stepping up efforts to chip away at abortion rights in the state.
Texas Republican legislators are stepping up efforts to chip away at abortion rights in the state. Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
When minors in Texas want to have an abortion without their parents’ consent, they have to go through a process known as judicial bypass, during which a judge decides whether their parents should know.

But on Wednesday, reproductive rights advocates testified in a Texas House committee against an odd proposal that would make that process even more difficult: a bill that would, in part, allow for an attorney to represent a fetus or an embryo.

Rosann Mariapurram is executive director of Jane’s Due Process, an Austin-based nonprofit that helps young people navigate the state’s strict abortion rules.

“Young people have a right to bodily autonomy,” she told the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, noting that abortion was already a “constitutionally protected right that minors have.”

If passed, the bill – HB 1171 – would allow for the appointment of “an attorney ad litem or guardian ad litem to represent an unborn child during a court proceeding authorizing a pregnant minor to consent to an abortion.”

Filed by state Rep. Scott Sanford, a Republican from McKinney, HB 1171 is one of several dozen anti-abortion bills making their way through the state Legislature. On Wednesday, the committee voted 5-1 to send it to the House, where the Republican majority could push it through.

In effect, if Sanford’s bill becomes law, abortion-seeking minors and their attorneys will still have to obtain a judge’s permission to keep parents out of the process and face an attorney assigned to legally represent the fetus.

"It is such an extreme bill," Mariapurram told the Observer. Although a similar bill entered the Legislature in the past, she fears there is a “heightened risk” of it now becoming law.

"No one could answer today how it would actually look in the courtroom," Mariapurram added. "These court hearings are supposed to be private; they're not supposed to be in full court because it's such an already burdensome process. It will turn into something like a trial, or an adversarial setting."

With HB 1171 and several dozen anti-abortion bills in the Legislature, rights groups and advocacy organizations have sounded the alarm on what they call an attack on reproductive rights.

HB 1171 mirrors a similar one in Alabama, where, in 2014, state legislators passed a law that allows a judge to appoint a legal guardian “for the interests of the unborn child.” But that law was blocked by a federal court and is under appeal.

Blake Rocap, legislative counsel for the Avow advocacy group, also spoke out against HB 1171 in front of the committee on Wednesday.

“The majority of young people involve their parents in their decision,” he told the Observer. “The only ones who get judicial bypasses are the very most marginalized kids who don't have anywhere else to turn. It really picks on them for political gain.”

"The only [kids] who get judicial bypasses are the very most marginalized kids who don't have anywhere else to turn. It really picks on them for political gain." - Blake Rocap, Avow

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HB 1171 and similar bills are part of “a national escalation to try and overturn Roe v. Wade and not have abortion be legal in the U.S. anymore," Rocap said, referring to the Supreme Court case that upheld the right to have an abortion. "And it's not what Texans want.”

Throughout the legislative session, several bills have aimed to chip away at abortion access. One, filed by Rep. Bryan Slaton, has even proposed criminal charges that potentially carry the death penalty for women and physicians who perform the procedure.

Other bills include a so-called “heartbeat bill,” which would bar the procedure after six weeks, around the time a pregnancy could first be detected. One proposes prohibiting cities from granting funds to groups that help people seeking abortions, while yet another would allow private citizens to file lawsuits against people they accuse of violating the state’s abortion restrictions.

“It’s all intended to dissuade people from providing abortion care and from helping people get abortions in Texas,” Rocap added.

Reproductive rights advocates in Texas have warned that the bills, if passed, could be detrimental in a state already home to some of the most restrictive abortion rules in the country.

The debate in the Texas House committee on Wednesday came a day after seven anti-abortion bills — one would effectively bar the procedure altogether — were passed out of the state Senate.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, while delivering his annual State of the State address earlier this year, spoke in favor of stricter abortion laws, saying he wanted to "make explicit what should be obvious: No unborn child should be targeted for abortion on the basis on race, sex or disability."

When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the issues he wanted to prioritize in the legislative session, he also pinpointed abortion as a priority.

In addition to reforming the state's power grid, guns rights and the national anthem at sporting events, Patrick threw his support behind several abortion-related bills: Among them were the "heartbeat bill" and another that would automatically ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick continues to push his extreme agenda by forcing seven anti-abortion bills through the Texas Senate,” Drucilla Tigner, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said by email.

“Most Texans believe abortion should be legal, yet Lt. Governor Patrick has made banning abortion a top priority,” Tigner added. “The Senate should stop peddling Lt. Governor Patrick’s extreme agenda and instead focus on the real crises facing Texans.”

"The bills passed by the Senate this week represent some of the strongest pro-life policies that have ever advanced this far in the process." - Rebecca Parma, Texas Right to Life

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Anti-abortion groups have celebrated the proposed bills. Rebecca Parma, legislative associate for the anti-abortion nonprofit Texas Right to Life, said the Senate's move to pass the seven bills "definitely feels like an important moment for the pro-life movement" in the state.

"The bills passed by the Senate this week represent some of the strongest pro-life policies that have ever advanced this far in the process," Parma said, adding that several dozen abortion-related bills have been introduced in the Legislature this session.

While some bills are more likely than others to become law, Mariappuram worries even the unsuccessful bills will have a “chilling effect” on people seeking an abortion.

When minors reach out to her organization, they are usually already in a tough spot, but they’re also often confused about what’s legal.

“We get that call all the time and teens just assume they're not allowed to get an abortion,” she said. “People don’t think it’s legal because they see all these bad bills passing, and that’s definitely the intent of these bills: to convince people it’s illegal.”
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.