Is the Texas lege about to get a sequel to last session’s sonogram bill, and the first emergency item of 2013?

Officially, the latter cannot happen until January. But today in Houston, Governor Rick Perry may well start the ball rolling on new abortion restrictions in the state, as these tweets last night from Evan Smith and Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune suggested:

Plans for the “fetal pain” bill were announced by Texas Right to Life on November 13, calling it “the flagship Pro-Life bill for the next session.” As yet unfiled (which could change today), it is expected to propose that Texas join several other states in banning abortion after a woman has been pregnant 20 weeks, instead of at the third trimester. 

“We’re looking at a big pro-life majority in the House and in the Senate, so we ought to expect some big pro-life accomplishments,” state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) told Chuck Lindell of the Austin American-Statesman. As Lindell noted:

The basic right to an abortion, set out in a 1973 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, still stands, leaving opponents to chip away at the legal edges in hopes of limiting access to the procedure.

According to Texas Right to Life:

The general medical consensus is that the developing human pre-born child is capable of experiencing torturous pain at 20 weeks post-fertilization.  These scientific findings are based on anatomical, behavioral, and physiological neuro-stimuli.  The science of pre-born pain sets the standard of care for pre-born children who undergo surgery in utero.

The Tribune‘s Becca Aaronson and Audrey White wrote about the potential bill in late November, noting that “a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 2005 found ‘evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.'”

Anne Marlan of the Dallas Observer noted that the bill is likely to be based on a model provided by the group Americans United for Life called the “Women’s Health Defense Act,” or, somewhat less euphemistically, the “Women’s Late-Term Pregnancy Health Act.” According to Marlan:

“Fetal pain” is the newest frontier in the anti-abortion movement; similar bills have already been passed in Nebraska, Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Arizona and Louisiana. That’s despite the fact that there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that fetuses actually feel pain . To make its case, Americans United for Life usually cites this study from 1987 while ignoring several more recent, less sketchy studies that debunk it. (You can find a few of those studies herehere and here.) The science suggests that fetuses feel pain at 29 to 35 weeks at the absolute earliest.

Joe Pojman of the state’s other big pro-life group, the Texas Alliance for LIfe, told the Observer they weren’t sure about supporting the potential fetal pain bill yet, though not on moral or scientific grounds. “There’s no question an unborn child of that age does feel pain,” Pojman said. “The question is if that legislation would withstand a constitutional challenge in federal court.”

As Mark Wiggins and John Fisher of KVUE in Austin reported, national statistics show that 91.7 per cent of all abortions are performed prior to the 13-week mark, and only 1.3 per cent beyond 21 weeks. 

“The abortions that do occur after 20 weeks are usually in the most dire of circumstances,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told KVUE. “Usually they’re because of a tragic thing that has occurred in the pregnancy that endangers a woman’s life or health or makes the fetus unable to be carried to term because of fetal anomalies.”