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New Texas Bill Sparks Abortion Debate

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to spend the first part of the program today on the sensitive subject of abortion, focusing on new efforts around the country by lawmakers to restrict access to it. Just yesterday, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed a controversial measure to cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood, a health organization that performs abortions as well as offers other health services.

Coming up, NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr will tell us more about the Indiana bill and other abortion-related measures that are being considered around the country. But first we go to Texas, where a bill to impose a new requirement on those who would seek abortions passed both houses of the state legislature last week after a heated debate on the matter. The Texas bill, which Governor Rick Perry has promised to sign, will require doctors in the state to conduct a sonogram at least 24 hours before performing an abortion and to describe what the image shows.

To talk more about the bill and its implications for Texas, we're joined now by one of the authors of the bill, Texas State Representative Sid Miller. He's a Republican from Stephenville. He's serving his fifth term in the House. We're also joined by Texas State Representative Carol Alvarado. She's a Democrat from Houston. She's also a former board member of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas, which provides reproductive health services, including abortion. And they're both with us from member station KUT in Austin. I thank you both so much for joining us.

State Rep. CAROL ALVARADO: Thank you.

State Rep. SID MILLER: It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Representative Miller, I'd like to start with you. You called Texas's bill one of the strongest pieces of sonogram legislation in the country. Why do you think this bill is necessary? Do you think that women currently seeking abortion services don't understand that they're terminating a pregnancy?

MILLER: Well, we took hours and hours of testimony in committee and repeatedly women told us, even though that they had a sonogram performed and that they had paid for that, and many of them had requested to view the sonogram, they were denied that right. So what House Bill 15 does, actually, is a fully informed consent for these women.

MARTIN: And what about the waiting period? What is the purpose of that?

MILLER: The waiting period is designed to give the woman the same treatment as any other medical procedure that is being performed. We want them to be able to go home, think about what their decisions are. We want to have all the options explained to them, have time to reflect before they make this life-changing decision.

MARTIN: But they have the right to do that now. You're requiring that they do so, which is not the same for other procedures.

MILLER: Actually, they do not have that right now. We took testimony, repeated testimony in committee, that women that had asked to view the sonogram were denied to view it. And that's basically what this bill...

MARTIN: OK. But why require the waiting period? Why require them to...

MILLER: So they would have time to reflect. You know, it's - you know, I don't think it can be questioned that the psychological well-being is a facet of health. And many women testified, since they did not see the sonogram or were denied the access to it, that even later in life they were having psychological problems after they had seen a sonogram of an unborn baby the same age as the one that they had aborted.

MARTIN: Representative Alvarado, you spoke on the House floor during the debate, calling the sonogram bill government intrusion at its best. What's your chief objection? Why do you think it's intrusive?

ALVARADO: Well, it's intrusive because it's forcing a medically unnecessary procedure. And I think as lawmakers our job is not to play doctor, which is what we're doing in this case. And I think it's far-reaching. When a woman makes a decision to have an abortion, I believe that she has thought it out. It's a very personal decision, a very difficult position. So I don't think that a waiting period is necessary.

But more importantly, what - I think it's there to shame and to guilt women about a very personal and private decision that she has made between her and her God, or possibly her and her husband. Recognizing that a good portion of women, a significant percentage of women who seek abortions are married.

MARTIN: Why do you feel that it's intrusive, though, since the law requires the doctors to describe that which exists - that which is, in fact, true?

ALVARADO: Now, I will say that the Senate version has changed a little bit, but the doctor is still required to describe the sonogram image to the patient, including internal organs, arms or legs. There's no option provided for this requirement. And a woman is not in a position that she can just hop off of the table and leave the room because she doesn't want to hear it. She has to lay there. She's not just laying there to get the jelly-on-the-belly sonogram, she is laying on the table and there's a vaginal probe that is used, and it's an intrusive process.

MARTIN: But why isn't that a measure of informed consent?

ALVARADO: Well, because it's forced. As I mentioned, the Senate version has changed, but the doctor still has to give the patient the option to see the sonogram and hear the fetal heartbeat.

MARTIN: And what about the waiting period? Do you have an objection to that?

ALVARADO: Well, yes, I do.

MARTIN: You heard Mr. Miller say that he feels that this is an important procedure and an important event and that people should take time to think about it.

ALVARADO: I agree. I think it's unnecessary. It's not as if someone's going out to buy a handgun. I think women that are seeking this procedure have already thought it out and we don't need to second-guess them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about a bill in Texas that will require women seeking abortions to get a sonogram at least 24 hours before the procedure and it also requires doctors to describe what the sonogram shows. Our guests are State Representative Sid Miller. He's the author of the bill. And Carol Alvarado, who opposes the bill. Three other states have passed similar sonogram bills. Oklahoma's bill has already been stayed by a court. That bill required doctors to verbally describe, again, what the sonogram shows. But it doesn't require the waiting period.

And so I wanted to ask, Mr. Miller, do you anticipate a legal challenge to this bill as it's signed, as Mr. Perry, the governor, has said he will do?

MILLER: You know, we looked at all those other cases that had legal challenges and I was very careful to craft this legislation not to include any of the wording that caused the challenges in the other states.

MARTIN: Mr. Miller, I wanted to ask if, and actually, I wanted to ask each of you this, that there are supporters of the bill as well who really say that this really is just about trying to get women not to have abortions - isn't that reasonable?

MILLER: The purpose of this bill is to bring this medical procedure up to the standards of any medical procedure that is performed now. There's no other medical procedure that I know of where you go in and you have an x-ray or an MRI and - in all cases you get to sit down with a doctor. That image is displayed to you. He tells you what's going on. In the case of abortion, the way it works now, the woman never even gets to meet the doctor. So no other medical procedure do you just walk in and immediately have the procedure done.

MARTIN: But...

MILLER: All other medical procedures, the patient has time, usually it's more than 24 hours, a lot of times it's a week or two.

MARTIN: But isn't that the real intent, is to hope that women, when given this additional information, won't proceed? Isn't that the point?

MILLER: Well, yeah, that - I would hope that this - a lot of women will, once they see the sonogram and hear the heartbeat, that they would not abort the child. I'm not trying to hide that at all.

MARTIN: Representative Alvarado, what about Mr. Miller's point? If women are given full information, more time to make a decision and then they make a different choice, doesn't that indicate that perhaps they were acting in haste?

ALVARADO: Well, they are given information. I, in previous sessions, before I came to the legislature, they did pass a law. And there's consultation, there's a brochure that women read before the abortion procedure. So there's ample time. I would disagree, and I can only speak from my experience with being a board member with Planned Parenthood, but the doctors do talk to the women. I would disagree with that.

But if the real issue here is to prevent abortions, then we should be doing more to fund family planning. But unfortunately, the Republicans in the House have promoted and voted to cut almost $61 million this session of family planning funding in our state. So that's contrary to what they're saying the purpose of this bill is.

MARTIN: Finally, before I let you each go, and I understand that you're both still in the middle of this session, so I do appreciate you both taking the time. Abortion has been legal in this country since 1973. And there's still this ongoing discussion around how the procedure should be done, if it should be done, you know, at all. And as we are going to discuss in our next conversation, there are efforts around the country to add additional requirements like this.

I just wondered if either of you envisions a time when we won't be having this debate?

MILLER: You know, I don't see that with the makeup of the current Supreme Court. I don't see that changing in the near future. My hope and prayer would be that sometime in the future that abortions would stop in this country.

MARTIN: What about you, Representative Alvarado? When do you think?

ALVARADO: I hope this is the last legislative policy debate that we have on this issue unless it's to fully fund family planning services. But I think that we have more important things that we should be talking about in our state. We have a large number of Texans that are uninsured when it comes to health insurance. We have a very significant, you know, over $20 billion budget deficit.

We have a lot of issues that need our attention. I just don't see that people are asking for this. And if you look at - around the country and here, most of the people that are promoting this are men. And I take, as a woman, as a legislator, I take offense to that. Because what it's saying is that we're incapable of handling these very important decisions.

MARTIN: Mr. Miller, I feel like it's appropriate to give you the opportunity to answer that.

MILLER: Well, actually, I have four joint authors with me on the bill, that helped me shepherd this through this process. Three of the four are women. I had very, very, you know, very appreciative of them 'cause they had a lot of input into this bill and legislation and were key into getting it passed. And I might add that this piece of legislation passed overwhelming with bipartisan support. It passed in the House 107 to 42.

MARTIN: Texas - go ahead.

ALVARADO: I would disagree with that bipartisan support. There are 101 Republicans. So, you know, you had maybe a handful of Democrats cross over. I don't call that bipartisan.

MARTIN: Texas State Representative Sid Miller was with us. He's a Republican from Stephenville. He's the author of the legislation that we've just been talking about. Carol Alvarado is with us also. She's a Texas state representative, a Democrat from Houston. They were both with us from member station KUT in Austin. I thank you both so much for joining us.

MILLER: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

ALVARADO: Thank you.

MARTIN: We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we will hear about some of the 570 bills that have been introduced in 48 states this year that would restrict abortion. We'll hear from NPR's Kathy Lohr, who's been following this legislation around the country. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.