The bill: House Bill 979
Filed by: Donna Howard, Democrat, District 48 (Austin)
What it would do: HB 979 would carve out a narrow exception to Texas’s current abortion ban, which grants exceptions only in cases of “a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy.” The bill would add language to the law that indicates that it does not apply to pregnancies resulting from criminal sexual assault. A patient who seeks an abortion under this exception does not need to have filed a police report, preserved forensic evidence of the crime, or have participated in a successful prosecution in order to receive the procedure.
The bill was filed by state representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who has long been a champion of abortion rights. The narrow tailoring of HB 979 is, in some ways, a bit of a surprise, given Howard’s record of advocacy around the issue and her opposition to abortion restrictions in the Lege. HB 979 isn’t a messaging bill intended to perform the frustration that her pro–abortion rights constituents feel, though. (See Round Rock Democrat James Talarico’s resolution to put the issue directly to voters if you’re looking for one of those.) Howard, the chair of the Texas Women’s Health Caucus, has authored a pragmatic attempt to find out if Republican lawmakers—some of whom expressed openness to carving out exceptions for rape and incest on the campaign trail—might be inclined to actually support those measures in practice.
Does the bill have a chance of passing? Maybe. The current abortion ban is unpopular with the majority of the state’s residents, so much so that during the campaign season, a handful of Republican Texas lawmakers, including representatives Steve Allison and John Lujan, both from San Antonio, and state senators Joan Huffman (Houston) and Robert Nichols (Jacksonville), were open about their interest in revisiting the issue. While some of the representatives who suggested they were willing to carve out exceptions were involved in competitive races against Democrats during the campaign cycle and might have been making cynical intimations to court voters, both Huffman and Nichols sit in safe districts they easily won by wide margins. And Speaker of the House Dade Phelan and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, both Republicans, have said they expect “discussion” of the abortion ban this session. Does that mean GOP lawmakers are eager to join Howard in pushing for HB 979?
We’ll find out, but we expect that this bill is a long shot. Howard, for one, said in June that she expected the Legislature to look at pursuing further abortion restrictions, not loosening the current ones. If Howard and other pro–abortion rights advocates have any success in the Lege in the coming session, though, it’ll probably be through something that looks a lot like HB 979.