Bryan Slaton walked up to the microphone at the head of the vast Texas House chamber on the afternoon of Thursday, January 14. The first-time representative had already faced the sea of legislators at the front mic a time or two that morning, in failed attempts to override the speaker’s discretion and mandate that all key committees be chaired by Republicans. But this time he paused to compose himself. The Republican from a district just east of Dallas had come to Austin for speeches such as the one he was about to make, to fight for hardline conservative policies. In a calm voice, he proposed that lawmakers pass a rule requiring them to vote on banning abortion before they vote on naming roads—one of the routine tasks lawmakers spend time considering in every session.
“I believe we do need to be abolishing abortion in Texas,” said Slaton. “Republican voters have said this is an issue they would like to stop in the state of Texas, and I believe it’s more important to save a life in the womb than to name a road or bridge.”
Slaton’s attempt failed 44–99, with only Republican support, but it signaled the start of a legislative session that’s likely to be unusually focused on abortion, even by Texas standards. In recent years, anti-abortion lawmakers have enacted measures that have made the Lone Star State one of the hardest places in the country to get the procedure. In the last decade alone, the Lege has banned primary health plans from covering most abortions, barred municipalities from contracting with providers of the procedure, and required women to watch sonograms and hear audio of the fetal heartbeat before ending their pregnancies. But this year, for the first time in nearly five decades, many lawmakers see a realistic opportunity to ban abortion outright, believing the new 6–3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court might be receptive to unraveling Roe v. Wade.
The Lege will take up a spate of anti-abortion bills this session. One proposal, sponsored by Representative Candy Noble, a Republican from North Texas, would ban municipalities such as Austin from funding so-called abortion access services, including transportation to a clinic and child care, while undergoing the procedure. Steve Toth, a Republican representative from the Woodlands, has filed legislation pushing to ban abortion starting at twelve weeks of gestation instead of twenty weeks, as is currently legal. Representative Shelby Slawson, a freshman Republican from Stephenville, has proposed going even further and banning abortion once a heartbeat is detected, at around six weeks’ gestation—before many women know they’re pregnant. If passed, Toth’s and Slawson’s bills would almost certainly be challenged, prompting court battles while the nation waits to see what the U.S. Supreme Court might do.
Other lawmakers have proposed bills contingent on the Supreme Court overturning Roe. Senator Angela Paxton (the wife of Attorney General Ken Paxton) and Representative Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from the Metroplex, introduced bills Friday that would make abortion illegal in all cases except when the health of the woman is at stake. If passed, a ban would go into effect thirty days after the Supreme Court repealed or weakened Roe, or after a constitutional amendment passed giving states the authority to impose a ban. Capriglione introduced a similar bill when lawmakers last met, in 2019, but it languished in committee and never was put to a vote. This year, the bill, which has support from one Democratic senator, Eddie Lucio Jr., of Brownsville, might be less of a long shot.
Last session, Republicans were shaken after elections in which they saw twelve representatives and two senators lose their seats to Democrats, and so they subsequently shied away from the most restrictive measures. This year, they come to Capitol having defied a so-called blue wave they worried would wash more of them out of office. To further cement GOP power, the Senate also voted the first week of the session to reduce the threshold of votes needed to bring a bill to the floor from nineteen to eighteen, meaning that Republicans can open debate on contentious bills in the upper chamber without requiring any Democrat to cross the aisle. In past sessions, many of the most extreme anti-abortion measures have been largely symbolic, but now lawmakers seem more likely to actually consider them. What’s clear is that many advocates on both sides of the abortion debate see this session as a particularly important and contentious one.
It certainly felt that way on Saturday, when hundreds of “right to life” proponents gathered outside the Capitol for a protest marking the forty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Some joined a line of honking vehicles proceeding down Congress Avenue and held signs through open sunroofs, while others congregated on the sidewalk and chanted slogans including “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go.” In the crowd, a pair of middle-school girls jointly yelled “Abortion is murder!” and waved signs at passing drivers, jumping around as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.
Some ardent anti-abortion advocates, such as Joe Pojman, who helped organize the rally and leads the nonprofit Texas Alliance for Life, are not convinced that the U.S. Supreme Court has shifted enough ideologically to overturn Roe, but they’d still be happy if the high court unravels the precedent a little. “We don’t think it’s likely the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade in total anytime soon,” said Pojman. “We’re not sure that the court is ready.” He wants state lawmakers to prepare for the moment it is.
But other rally attendees, such as Dr. Milinda Morris, a retired OB/GYN, expressed hope that state lawmakers will abolish abortion because the Republicans elected last year lean further right than those of the recent past. Morris had hoped to join them, but the Republican lost her bid against Democratic senator Borris Miles in Houston in November. “The states need to take a stand and make a statement,” she said. “We’re expecting results.”
Nearby, counterprotesters chided anti-abortion demonstrators for going maskless to the rally, saying they’re not protecting life by spreading COVID. Others, wearing red robes and calling themselves Texas Handmaids, quietly held signs stressing that lawmakers have no right to their bodies. To those fighting for abortion rights, the pandemic has exacerbated an already arduous process for ending a pregnancy. At the beginning of the year, Texans in half of the state’s 254 counties lived farther than one hundred miles from an abortion provider. By law, patients in the state had to make multiple visits to a clinic to undergo the procedure, at a time when many were trying to avoid unnecessary travel to curb the spread of COVID. And while telemedicine expanded in the wake of COVID, it is outlawed for any aspect of abortion consultation by Texas law.
Governor Greg Abbott also used his emergency powers early in the pandemic to ban the procedure. With a flick of his pen in late March, Abbott signed a thirty-day executive order to postpone all surgeries and procedures that were “not medically necessary” in order to conserve personal protective equipment like masks and preserve hospital capacity. Two days later, Republican attorney general Ken Paxton issued an opinion by press release, interpreting the governor’s words to ban all abortions too. That included medication abortions, which require only that patients take two pills by mouth 24 hours apart.
Hundreds of patients canceled appointments at clinics across the state. Under the order, 94 percent of Texas counties were now at least one hundred miles or more from the nearest abortion provider. Patients had few options: wait until later in their pregnancy, which could lead to a higher risk of complications; travel out of state, likely to New Mexico or Colorado, during a pandemic; or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. A study published in the Journal of the American Medicine Association found a more than sixfold increase in the number of Texas women traveling out of state for an abortion (947 did so in April 2020, versus 157 in February). After months of dizzying court fights that made abortion legal again one day and then upheld the ban again the next, the governor eventually eased up on restrictions on elected procedures and abortion became legal again. The number of second-term abortions in the state increased in the following weeks by 61 percent.
In the face of these ramped-up attacks on women’s choice, some activists from one of the state’s largest pro-choice advocacy groups, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, feel the movement has been too polite. In past years, the national strategy of pro-choice groups has called for activists to avoid framing their advocacy around “abortion” and to use euphemisms such as “women’s reproductive health” and “women’s rights.” Even President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris left the word “abortion” out of their public statement celebrating Roe’s anniversary Friday. But Delma Catalina Limones of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas said that type of sidestepping doesn’t work here. She’s called for more pointed political warfare on abortion advocacy: her group is leading education campaigns to help Texans understand the severity of abortion restrictions, getting more involved in electing pro-abortion candidates and urging abortion-friendly lawmakers to speak openly about the procedure instead of cloaking debates in generalities. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas announced Monday that it will secede from its national organization and form a new group called Avow, which Limones says will be bolder, punchier, and focused squarely on abortion.
Texas will “always [be] the guinea pig for the worst of the worst legislation,” said Limones, who will be the communications director for Avow. “The opposition has only become more bold, more inflammatory. We deserve a movement that is going to confront the issue and not always be on the defense.”