Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, Wives

In 2011 the Legislature slashed family planning funds, passed a new sonogram law, and waged an all-out war on Planned Parenthood that has dramatically shifted the state’s public health priorities. In the eighteen months since then, the conflict has continued to simmer in the courts, on the campaign trail, and in at least one PR disaster. Meanwhile, what will happen to Texas women—and their fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands—remains very much unclear.
Photograph by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

There are things about women that most men would just as soon never discuss. The stirrups in a gynecologist’s office, for one; the tampon aisle at the grocery store, for another; and pretty much any matter involving words like “cervix,” “uterus,” and “vagina.” At least, that’s how it was until March 2, 2011. Back in January of the same year, at the start of that legislative session, Governor Rick Perry had pushed as an emergency item a bill requiring all women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound 24 hours beforehand. As Sid Miller, the legislator who sponsored the bill in the House, put it, “We want to make sure she knows what she is doing.” 

At a public hearing on the bill the following month, Tyler representative Leo Berman took the mike and insisted that 55 million fetuses had been aborted since Roe v. Wade—or, as he called it, “a Holocaust times nine.” The author of a book on abortion rights gave a somewhat overwrought speech about the differences between “a zygote and a baby.” A woman named Darlene Harken described herself as “a victim of abortion” because, she maintained, she wasn’t warned about the mental and physical fallout from the procedure; Patricia Harless, a representative from Spring, thanked her for her “bravery” and “strength.” Alpine’s Pete Gallego countered by expressing his resentment of “people who stop caring after the child is born.” 

In March the bill reached the House floor, where debate raged for three days, as much as ten hours a day. Tensions ran high in the chamber, which was lit by a benevolent winter sun that glinted off the manly oak desks and supersized leather chairs. On the first day, March 2, Miller, a burly man with white hair and a sun-lined face that wrinkles into a bright, inviting smile, explained the legislation. A former school board member from Stephenville, he has a loamy Texas accent and favors a spotless white Stetson. If you stare at him long enough, you might easily forget that it’s the twenty-first century.

Miller described his bill in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he were pushing a new municipal utility district. “What we’re attempting to do is to provide women all available information while considering abortion and allow them adequate time to digest this information and review the sonogram and carefully weigh the impact of this life-changing decision,” he began. Miller then listed everything his bill would require before an abortion could be performed. A woman would have to review with her doctor the printed materials required under the 2003 Woman’s Right to Know Act. While the sonogram image was displayed live on a screen, the doctor would have to “make audible the heartbeat, if it’s present, to the woman.” There was also a script to recite, about the location of the head, hands, and heart. Affidavits swearing that all of this had been properly carried out according to Texas law would have to be signed and filed away in case of audits. A doctor who refused could lose his or her license. 

As soon as Miller finished, Houston Representative Carol Alvarado strode up to the podium. There could have been no clearer contrast: her pink knit suit evoked all those Houston ladies who lunch, its black piping setting off her raven hair. Her lipstick was a cheery shade of fuchsia, but her disgust was of the I-thought-we’d-settled-this-in-the-seventies variety. 

I do not believe that we fully understand the level of government intrusion this bill advocates,” she said tersely. The type of ultrasound necessary for women who are less than eight weeks pregnant is, she explained, “a transvaginal sonogram.” 

Abruptly, many of the mostly male legislators turned their attention to a fascinating squiggle pattern on the carpet, and for a rare moment, the few female legislators on the floor commanded the debate. Representative Ana Hernandez Luna approached the back mike and sweetly asked Alvarado to explain what would happen to a woman undergoing a transvaginal sonogram.

Well,” Alvarado answered helpfully, “she would be asked by

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