The Best and Worst of the 84th

Governor Abbott spent the weekend clearing his desk of all pending legislation, and thus we can finally close the book on Texas’s 84th legislative session. This year’s session wasn’t especially unusual, in that it saw its fair share of “chubbing,” glad-handing, horse-trading, and fist fights. Also typical was the sheer volume of threats leveled against Texans’ civil liberties. Thankfully, most of the worst proposals failed to make it onto the books—while some of the better ones did.

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues that mattered for civil liberties:

LGBT Rights:  The Texas legislature faced a serious quandary this year. On the one hand, some of our politicians really, really despise the idea of LGBT equality—more now than ever, with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision due any day—and are terrified of the possibility that it will become a reality. On the other, Indiana’s “religious refusal” debacle demonstrated just how catastrophic state-sponsored discrimination is for business.

Against that backdrop, LGBT rights fared well this session. Our LGBT Equality Coalition rose to the challenge, and Texas business leaders spoke out against discriminatory laws. Legislators introduced more than 20 bills and two constitutional amendments designed to enshrine discrimination into state law, but in the end none of them passed.  The only LGBT-related bill to become law (signed by Abbott with great fanfare) merely reaffirms that clergy can refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs, a right already guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Reproductive Rights: Not satisfied with passing the infamous HB 2 in 2013 (now before the Supreme Court) and the closure of more than half the states abortion clinics, extremist legislators tried to double down.  They introduced measures to eliminate an exception to the state’s 20-week abortion ban for severe fetal abnormalities and to block insurance from being used to pay for the termination of a pregnancy. While both of those measures failed, others did not.

In a particularly mean-spirited attack, the legislature revamped the “judicial bypass” process, making it even more difficult for young women who are victims of neglect, abuse, or sex trafficking to access abortion services. To add insult to injury, politicians also blocked access to breast and cervical cancer screenings for patients of Planned Parenthood, and diverted more state funding to discredited “crisis pregnancy centers,” whose literature has been described by the Texas Medical Association as “needlessly graphic” and “factually inaccurate.”

Criminal Justice:  Groups from every segment of the political spectrum united to reform the state’s criminal justice system. The Smart-on-Crime coalition helped enact a series of measures designed to streamline the penal code, reduce recidivism, improve the reintegration process, and give former convicts a better chance for success in life after prison. Disadvantaged school children need no longer fear a fast track to the prison system, now that truancy is no longer a crime. School police officers will receive specialized training to help them better meet the needs of the students they serve and protect. Prisoners destined for solitary will now undergo mental health screenings.

Immigration: The rights of the undocumented fared better than one might have expected in the current political climate.  For one, the fact that Texas DREAMers will continue to have access to in-state university tuition was welcome news. Additionally, two attempts to wrest immigration enforcement from the federal government were thwarted: the Interstate Border Enforcement Compact, designed to allow member states to coordinate border control efforts independent of the federal government, and the Sanctuary Cities bill, which would have required local law enforcement entities to enforce immigration law at the expense of their own local priorities.

However, one immigration measure that enjoyed broad support in the legislature was passed into law. A sweeping border protection bill that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, HB 11 shows that our legislature only embraces small government and fiscal conservatism when it concerns tax rates and deregulation, but not so much when civil rights, police overreach, mission creep, and government surveillance are on the table. The law sets up a centralized surveillance center, allows for southbound checkpoints of American citizens still in the U.S., and implements a hiring surge of officers, which has proven a reliable method for fomenting corruption and abuse in law enforcement.

The bottom line: In spite of some victories for civil liberties this legislative session, lesbian, gay and transgender Texans can still be fired, evicted, or denied services in much of the state, regardless of whether the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. Texas women seeking abortion access find ever more obstacles in their path, with many more clinics forced to close if the Supreme Court refuse to step in. We still have one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country. Private prisons continue to clamor for more inmates, and the state still has heavy incentives to provide them. And legislators continue to push for proposals that would punish immigrants for seeking a better life.

The legislature reconvenes in 2017, and until then there is much work to do.

To Prevent Abortion Access, Legislators are Risking Women’s Lives

Access to safe and legal abortion is an incontrovertible constitutional right, though extremists in the Texas Capitol are doing their level best to change that. Emboldened by its past, dubious success with the now-infamous HB 2, this week the legislature is poised to pass two measures—HB 3994 and SB 575—that continue to whittle away at women’s access to health care, and in a worst-case scenario, would risk their very lives.

Representative Geanie Morrison’s (R-Victoria) HB 3994 follows a trend set by a number of measures introduced this session that create big problems by feigning to address issues that happen not to exist in the first place. Currently, minors seeking an abortion in Texas must first have parental consent, but in those rare instances where those minors either cannot or will not get that consent, they may seek to override the requirement by going before a judge in a process called “judicial bypass.” Through its onerous and ill-defined ID requirement, its needless deadline extensions, and its flagrant disdain for confidentiality, HB 3994 serves to make each and every step of the bypass process more difficult and, in many cases, impossible.

Given that only about one half of one percent of all abortions performed in Texas involve minors seeking judicial bypass, the bill’s scope is limited. However, the women who do seek judicial bypass are usually doing so for a very good reason: oftentimes these young women are victims of abuse, neglect, or sex trafficking, and their lives are about to be made considerably harder simply to satisfy the social agenda of a few Texas extremists. This bill is designed to hurt vulnerable children. That is precisely what it will do, and that is all that it will do.

For its part, SB 575 is an insidious and frankly baffling piece of legislation diametrically opposed to the conservative philosophy that holds that the state should leave businesses alone. Ostensibly tailored to prevent federal funding of abortions through the ACA exchange, in practice SB 575 makes it illegal for private health insurers to cover abortions for their clients, leaving them with nowhere to turn.

Additionally, while SB 575 does contain an exception for life endangerment, it provides no such protections in the case of rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormality. Indeed, the authors of the bill don’t even seem to grasp what a “severe fetal abnormality” actually is. While SB 575’s supporters would argue that pro-choice advocates are seeking abortions in order to avoid having children with Down’s Syndrome or a cleft palate, it’s unlikely they’ve ever had to face broken-hearted families who had to terminate pregnancies due to Anencephaly, Alobar Holophrosencephaly, Patau’s Syndrome, Thanatophoric Dysplasia, or any other of the devastating genetic dispositions that are, according to the medical terminology, “incompatible with life.”

With these two iniquitous bills, extremist elements in the Texas legislature demonstrate how far they’re willing to go to prop up their crumbling anti-choice agenda. These measures are likely to pass, tragically, and so once again we’ll have to look to the courts to ensure that reasonable reproductive policy prevails. In the meantime, however, the women of Texas will continue to suffer at the indifferent and insensitive hands of Texas legislators.

There’s still a chance to convince our leaders to do the right thing: sign the petition today and tell your representatives that they have no right to come between a woman and her doctor.

Pregnant Women and Their Families Should Not Be Treated as Second-Class Citizens

Immersed in busy Thanksgiving preparations in 2013, Ernie and Lynne Machado received a phone call from their son-in-law, Erick Muñoz, that forever shook their world. Something was wrong with their daughter Marlise. The family rushed to the hospital only to discover that 33 year-old Marlise had suffered a pulmonary embolism and, two days later, the hospital declared her brain-dead.

Marlise had previously worked as a paramedic and truly understood the fragility of life. She had many conversations with her husband Erick about what decisions would be made in the event of an emergency and her answer was crystal clear – no intrusive end-of-life interventions. Marlise’s parents, Lynne and Ernie, stood united with Erick in asserting that their daughter’s wishes were to be respected.  Together, they decided to forego medical intervention.

But in the midst of their agony, more shock and heartache was yet to come. Their request to remove Marlise from life support was refused– despite her previously expressed wishes – simply due to her 14-week pregnancy. Texas law currently forbids doctors and hospitals from withdrawing or withholding medical interventions from a terminally-ill pregnant patient, even if she and her family object.  As a result, Marlise was denied the right given to every other Texan: the right to determine her own end-of-life care. Texas law forced her doctors to provide treatment that was of absolutely no benefit to her and despite her family’s objections.

Eventually, after an intense drawn-out legal battle, Marlise was finally put to rest. Sadly, for the family, the delayed decision felt like a half-hearted reprieve instead of true justice. The same law that treated Marlise as a second-class citizen is still on the books, which means this tragic situation could still happen to another family and her loved ones. Every Texan should be treated equally under the law. That’s why today, we stand with Marlise’s family in their support of legislation at the State Capitol. Touched by her story and wanting to protect other Texans from suffering such harmful government intrusion, State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) drafted and filed HB 3183, called “Marlise’s Law.”

“Marlise’s Law” would repeal the pregnancy exclusions in sections 166.049 and 166.098 of the Texas Health and Safety Code barring pregnant women from making their own decisions about end-of-life care. Every Texan deserves the autonomy to make profoundly personal decisions regarding end-of-life medical interventions. Please join the ACLU of Texas and our partners in ensuring that no woman or family will suffer the indignity of being treated as second-class citizens and will be afforded the dignity and respect they deserve.

Recap: Compilation of #HOUequality tweets

At a special City Council hearing on Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance that took place Wed., April 29, most residents who testified voiced their unequivocal support for the ordinance. Just 19 people spoke against.

Attend the public meetings on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. To sign up to speak at the Public Session on Tuesday, May 6, you must do so before 1 p.m. the day of the meeting by:

  • Calling the City Secretary’s office at 832.393.1100
  • Sending an email to citysecretary@houstontx.gov
  • Coming by the office on the public level of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby, Houston 77002 by 1:30 p.m. that
    Tuesday

Before you testify please download our guide (PDF), which is full of helpful tips for giving public testimony. If you can’t make it in person, tell your story online. You can submit text or a video link.

Show your support on social media!

Can You Hear Us Now?

Cheryl Newcomb
Director of Development

Last night, I sat with hundreds of my closest friends in the gallery of the Texas Senate, watching an historic moment unfold in Texas. I snagged a seat in the gallery at about 9:00 p.m., after standing for hours in an orange-hued  line that snaked from the gallery doors, two times around the rotunda, and down the stairs. I settled in for the long haul.

Senator Davis was a champion. I got my seat after Senator Davis had already received two strikes – the first for not keeping her comments “germane” to SB5, and the second for receiving assistance from Senator Ellis in donning a back brace after 9 hours of standing and talking. She was well into a lengthy analysis of SB5 and the consequences if it were to become law, when things got real. Very, very real.

On the edge of our seats, we watched breathless as Lt. Governor Dewhurst sustained a third point of order against Sen. Davis for not keeping her remarks “germane.”

I could explain how subjective a term “germane” is, and how broadly it has been applied in other legislative debates, but that is not the point. The point is, the eyes of Texas women were on the proceedings that night, and the eyes of hundreds of thousand s of people all over the world. With that third point of order, the endgame became clear. With that third point of order, we who had been observers became participants.

The gallery erupted in chants of “Let Her Speak!” Senator Watson immediately moved to appeal the Lt. Governor’s ruling. Dewhurst passed the gavel to Chairman Duncan, who immediately lost track of who he had recognized to speak.  We settled down in the gallery while a lengthy consultation with the parliamentarian ensued.

By my phone, it was 11:53 p.m. when it happened; when the people of Texas – those in the gallery, the now thousands that lined the rotunda at all levels and spilled out onto the Capitol steps, the nearly 200,000 following the live stream online, and the multitudes on Facebook and Twitter – decided that enough was enough. We stood and cheered. We cheered for Senator Davis, for her allies on the floor, for all of us watching near and far.

It would be hours before we would know for sure that SB5 had failed. But it was that moment – that moment when our voices rose as one, just before the gallery was closed and we were escorted out singly or in groups – it was in that moment we claimed our victory.

This is what justice sounds like.

So Governor Perry, Lt. Governor Dewhurst, and all the others who tried to ignore the will of the people they are privileged to represent, I ask you this: Can you hear us now?

You Found Your Voices and You Have Been Heard

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

State Sen. Wendy Davis may be doing the heavy lifting – standing and talking for 13 hours without a break and without food or bathroom breaks – but she is merely an extension of you.

As I have traveled the state since taking this position five and half years ago, whether I was speaking to a group of 20, 50 or even 150 people, over and over I’ve heard you say, “I didn’t know there was anyone else in Texas who thinks like me.”

The extremist minority has always been louder. Until now.

I’ve always believed there are more of us than we knew, and this past week you’ve shown that to be true. It started when we released statewide poll results last Wednesday afternoon showing that 80 percent of Texans’ don’t think legislators ought to be making these deeply personal decisions for women, that what registered voters really want is for their Legislators to focus on jobs, the economy and education.

Every time you showed up, every time you spoke up – whether it was the 700 plus women and men who waited more than 12 hours to speak at the House hearing last Thursday, or the 1300 who filled the Capitol on Sunday as the House took up the anti-reproductive freedom measures – you emboldened so many more to speak up.

Whether you said no to the arrogance of the majority or no to those whose actions are driven merely for short-term political game, you emboldened so many more.

You were heard across the nation and around the world – really.

It appears victory is in sight. We know this is only one battle in a much bigger war against women and poor people. We can bask in the win tonight and then we have to start again.

Our poll showed clearly that supporting the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship isn’t a Democratic or liberal position. In fact, 50 percent of the respondents to our poll said they are Republicans or tend to vote Republican, while 37 percent said they are Democrats or tend to vote Democratic.

We must encourage all Texans to join us in this fight; we will start now to educate the public about what their legislature tried to do to them in the name of politics and we will remind them over and over through the 2014 elections and as we prepare for the 84th Legislative Session in 2015.

And we will remember those who stood so tall, so long, so resolute.

Be sure to send your thank-you notes to these Texas heroes:

Rep. Jessica Farrar, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, Rep. Donna Howard, Rep. Sarah Davis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Rep. Yvonne Davis, Sen. John Whitmire, Rep. Nicole Collier, Rep. Mary Gonzalez, Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, Rep. Mary Ann Perez, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, Rep. Alma Allen, and thank Wendy for standing up for Texas women.

At the same time, don’t forget those whose arrogance and complete disregard for the people whose business they were elected to conduct put us through this costly, needless exercise.

On second thought, maybe we should thank Rick Perry and David Dewhurst for helping us find our voices.

Video: 5 Ways TX Politicians are Attacking Women’s Health with SB5

1. SB5 would result in the closure of all but five abortion clinics in TX.
2. Forces doctors to follow a treatment regimen conjured up by politicians.
3. Ignores recommendations of doctors and medical groups across TX and the country.
4. Denies expanded health care for children.
5. Restricts the # of parking spots and location of water fountains in the name of better medical care.

SB5 isn’t about medical safety. It’s about politics and severely limiting women’s options. Learn more and take action at www.aclutx.org/women

They Think We Are Stupid

Terri Burke
Executive Director

The Houston Chronicle on Thursday said there is a “foul odor” about this legislative special session. I agree.

The reasons we agree are many, not the least of which is that the majority of Texans aren’t interested in more restrictions on access to abortion services. We’ve got three polls to prove it, yet Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst think we are stupid, that they know best – or maybe it’s just that they’re pandering to the minority of loud-mouthed right-wing extremists.

There is also the matter of the leadership thinking we are too stupid to notice they changed the rules for this oh-so-very urgent matter to be taken up in the special session.

First, there are the polls. During the regular session we polled in three specific Senate districts, all heavily Latino and less urban, even rural in one case. Among the opinions polled, two questions asked how strongly respondents agreed with these statements:

“Personal, private medical decisions of whether to have an abortion should be made by a woman, her family, and her doctor, not by politicians.” The “Strongly Agree” responses ranged from 70 to 74 percent across the three Senate districts.

“Instead of spending time passing more laws restricting abortion, the state legislature in Texas should be focusing on creating jobs and growing the economy.” Here, the “Strongly Agree” responses ranged from 71 to 75 percent.

Rick Perry and David Dewhurst and several key members of the legislative leadership think they know best and legislators ought to spend more of our tax dollars and more of everyone’s time on subjects Texans don’t care about.

Then, there is the rules change. They think we don’t understand that what they are doing is sort of like a losing high school football team moving the game to another field where there are no referees. The Senate rules of the 83rd regular session require 2/3 of the body – 21 members – to vote to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. It is widely agreed that the rule is designed to protect the legislature from spending time on matters that have limited, sometimes only extremist, support.

During the 83rd regular session, only two reproductive freedom bills got out of committee and placed on the Senate Intent Calendar. Neither ever drew 2/3 support to be brought to the floor.

Now, we come to the 1st special session of the 83rd Legislature, and the rules have been changed. They moved the game to a field with no referees: Dewhurst unilaterally, as his office permits, decided the 2/3 rule would not apply. It doesn’t apply to the redistricting issue for which the special session was originally called; it doesn’t apply to the transportation bills being considered; and it doesn’t apply to the four anti-abortion bills (and the omnibus bill the four have been rolled into).

They think we don’t see what they are doing. They claim they are representing the views of most Texans. They are not.

They must think we’re stupid.

Don’t Mess With Texans’ Sex Ed

Rebecca Robertson
Legal and Policy Director

Does Texas really need more pregnant teens? Two shameful new bills are engineered to guarantee that.

HB 1057 by State Representative Jeff Leach and SB 521 by State Sen Ken Paxton both heap budget-breaking burdens on public schools that are trying to give students quality sex education. Under these laws, schools would need written parent consent to offer sexual health education from any provider who is not a district employee.

Even worse: the bills outright forbid health professionals to teach sex ed if the educators have any link to health providers that include abortion services. That means that hundreds of districts that lack their own resources to provide their own sex ed would have to give up or whittle their programs.

And this is in the state with the fourth-highest rate of children giving birth to children.

How can Leach and Paxton justify this?

Easy: their bills exist only to bar Planned Parenthood from teaching students about sex and health. Attacking this effective, established provider of health care is priority #1 for these lawmakers. It’s more important to Leach and Paxton than preventing abortions, protecting young girls, and allowing our communities to decide for themselves how they want to inform children about health and sex.

Paxton and Leach are professional politicians. Planned Parenthood and public schools are professional educators. Leave our student’s health in the hands of those who care most.

Attack Bills Make Women’s Health A Political Weapon

Bill filing time is up at the Legislature, and it’s exposed an arsenal of bills aimed at women’s health. The main weapon: TRAPs, or Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers. It’s easy to spot these bills. They’re medically

unnecessary, and they single out abortion providers for intense, politically motivated regulations.

One TRAP bill would burden clinics with so many unneeded regulations that all but three or four clinics would likely close. The bill forces abortion clinics to meet higher, specialized regulatory standards designed for facilities that perform outpatient surgery.  These regulations have little to do with abortion. Instead, they’re meant control surgery variables such as anesthesiologists, laboratories, and radiology procedures. Again, there’s no medical or legal reason to apply these standards to abortion clinics. But if this bill passes, it endangers thousands of Texas women by closing the very facilities that could offer them safe, regulated health services. SB 1198

Sen. Dan Patrick’s proposed restriction on medication-based abortion is one of the worst. Doctors know non-surgical abortions, which use medication in the first weeks of pregnancy, are safe and affordable. Yet Patrick wants to force unneeded repeat appointments, only with one physician, on any Texas woman prescribed a medication-based abortion. There’s no medical reason for this government intervention. Abortions are intensely regulated and among the safest medical procedures performed in the United States. But then, this bill isn’t about protecting women’s health. It’s about promoting Dan Patrick. SB 97

Then there are the politicians who want to meddle directly in families’ most private decisions. A proposed ban would outlaw abortion in almost every case after 20 weeks —  in other words, before many women even know they are pregnant. That means a family with a tragic complication might not know about it in time to consult their doctor, or worse, be goaded into a hasty decision. The 20 week ban recklessly takes the most private health decisions from families and their doctors, handing it directly to Texas politicians. That’s not where our reproductive health decisions belong. SB 25