After a long and at times heated late-night debate, the Texas House on Wednesday approved a proposal that would severely tighten restrictions on a process that enables teens to have abortions in extreme cases when they can't get the required parental consent.
Victoria Republican Rep. Geanie Morrison said her measure is intended to "improve protection of the minor girl and ensure that parental rights are protected."
The law governing the so-called judicial bypass process had gone untouched since becoming statute in 1999, but it has been targeted by anti-abortion groups during the current legislative session, which ends June 1. Under the law, girls younger than 18 may get a judge's permission to have an abortion without telling their parents if they meet certain strict criteria.
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San Antonio Rep. Roland Gutierrez was among several Democrats who filed unsuccessful amendments Wednesday to try to dilute the bill.
"I think the true issue here is that the authors of this legislation want to make it harder and harder to get a judicial bypass," Gutierrez said.
After changing the judicial bypass process was named one of the five priority issues by anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, several Republicans filed bills to address what they see as a loophole in the state's abortion requirements -- which are among the most restrictive in the country.
Melissa Conway, the group's spokeswoman, said the "loophole-ridden" process allows teens to get "dangerous abortions without the guidance of their parents."
Legislators filed a bevy of bills in response, but ditched many of them in favor of Morrison's omnibus measure, which preliminarily passed the House on Wednesday on a 98-47 vote.
Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1 in the lower chamber, where the bill now needs only a final, largely procedural vote. It would then head to the tea party-led Texas Senate, where its road to passage may be even speedier.
Each year in Texas, about 300 teenagers are granted a court-ordered abortion. Currently, teens who don't want to involve their parents must prove either that they are mature enough to make the decision or that telling their parents would lead to abuse or otherwise not be in their best interest.
Teens may file applications for the procedure in any Texas county, but Morrison's bill would change that, requiring juveniles to seek the procedure in their home county. If the applicant's home county has fewer than 10,000 residents, Morrison's proposal would allow them to apply in a neighboring county.
It also requires courts to report statistics on judicial bypass applications and forces girls to undergo mental health assessments before obtaining a judge's permission for an abortion. Some opponents of the procedure had pushed for publicizing the name of judges who grant abortions under judicial bypass -- but that hot-button proposal was left out of Morrison's otherwise sweeping measure.
Opponents also are concerned that adult women who may not have a valid government ID would be kept from having an abortion, since Morrison's measure would stipulate that pregnant women are presumed to be minors unless they have an ID that proves otherwise.
Still, opponents say the changes would gut a system that had been effective. They argue the changes would endanger girls already in difficult situations, including those with abusive parents or whose parents have abandoned them. Arkansas is the only other state to target the process this year, according to the pro-abortion group the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"This is a monster bill," said Amanda Allen, the center's state legislative counsel. "It really comes down to trying to intimidate teens who need to make this decision without their parents."