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Anti-abortion activists marched in front of the Supreme Court in March 2016.EXPAND
Anti-abortion activists marched in front of the Supreme Court in March 2016.
Stephen Young

Texas’ ‘Born-Alive’ Bill Is Going to Be a Thing

Sometimes, Texas laws address real problems, like the state's soon-to-be dead poverty trap, the Driver Responsibility Program, or its unconscionable rape kit testing backlog. Other times, they're drafted and passed for purely political purposes. The "born-alive" act, now passed by both the Texas House and Senate, is one of those useless bills. It's nothing but a response to Texas' anti-abortion activists and the national narrative being spun in conservative circles about an infanticide epidemic that's heretofore gone completely unnoticed.

The bill, House Bill 16, apes a 2002 federal law signed by President George W. Bush that guarantees infants born alive during an attempted abortion the same rights as any other person. Jeff Leach, the House author of the bill, says it's necessary because the federal law doesn't have any teeth to punish doctors who let infants die after they survive an abortion.

"I don't believe (current law) goes far enough, so House Bill 16 seeks to clarify and provide teeth and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that a Texas baby that is born alive after an abortion receives the highest standards of medical care from that physician," Leach said in April.

Under the bill, a doctor who doesn't treat an abortion-surviving baby the same way he or she would've treated another infant born at the same gestational age, faces a minimum civil penalty of $100,000. The circumstances that would lead to the bill coming into play, if they exist at all, are vanishingly rare.

"Since 2013, there have been no cases of individuals born after abortion (in Texas)," Drucilla Tigner, a political strategist for the ACLU of Texas, told a House committee earlier this spring, citing stats from Texas' Health and Human Services Commission. "Homicide laws already cover infants no matter the circumstances of their birth. ... The actual impact of HB 16 is to distort the public perception of abortion care."

When HB 16 passed the House, 50 Democrats voted present, rather than voting against the bill, because they believed it wasn't worth the legislature's time. Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, explained her and her colleagues' reasoning.

"The aim of HB 16 is clear — further stigmatize abortion, misinform the public, intimidate physicians and interfere with a woman’s ability to seek medical care," Howard said. "We refuse to waste limited time we have here by entertaining malicious and purely political attacks against women and doctors."

There was less drama in the Senate on Thursday. Only one senator, Dallas' Nathan Johnson, voiced any opposition to the bill before it passed by a 21-10 vote.

"This is not a good bill. We don't have any evidence that it's necessary," Johnson said. “Its purpose is to interfere with the legitimate practice of a profession and the constitutional right of people."

While the House and Senate versions of HB 16 are almost identical, the House will have to sign off on a few minor changes to the bill over the next two weeks. When they do, the bill will head to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. Abbott has already said he supports the proposed law. 

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