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Council members sign letter supporting reproductive rights law

Thursday, January 9, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Three Austin City Council members have sent a letter to members of Congress and the Texas Legislature, urging the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act and the repeal of House Bill 2. Council Members Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole signed the letter, which was dated Jan. 7.


The Council trio’s message appears to enjoy support from several of their Council colleagues. However, many political observers say neither passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act or a repeal of HB 2 are likely in the near future in the current political atmosphere in Washington and Austin.


The Women’s Health Protection Act is a measure introduced by Democrats in the U.S. Senate intended to stem the recent barrage of state-level restrictions on reproductive rights.


According to its author, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the bill would limit the states’ efforts to indirectly restrict abortion by requiring new laws to be medically necessary. Blumenthal said if passed, the act wouldn’t immediately supersede the existing state restrictions, but would set the stage for court challenges to officially overturn them.


One of the measures it is squarely aimed at is House Bill 2, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013. The bill has the effect of severely limiting access to medical abortions in Texas by requiring the doctor performing the procedure to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. About a dozen clinics in Texas have been closed or forced to quit offering abortions because of the law. It is currently being reviewed U.S. Fifth Circuit but it seems likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.


HB 2 gained national prominence when Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) filibustered the bill for 11 hours in the final days of the 87th Legislature, effectively killing it. However, despite Davis’ efforts and hundreds of protesters crowding the Capitol building, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed the bill in a special session and it was signed by Gov. Rick Perry.


The Council members’ letter encouraged members of Congress and the Legislature to “protect each woman’s health, her right to determine whether and when to have a child and her ability to have that right.”


Mayor Pro Tem Cole said she was particularly concerned about the effects of the Texas anti-abortion law. “HB2 places an undue burden on women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to reproductive health care,” she told the Austin Monitor in an email. “The Women’s Health Protection Act serves to protect these rights for Austin residents.”


Co-sponsor Morrison said she has concerns that, “federal protections are clearly needed to limit the interference state legislatures have enacted by erecting barriers to a woman’s constitutional right to make her own health care decisions. As representatives of Austinites, I believe Council members have a responsibility to speak out to protect women’s health and their rights.”


Spelman said women in Texas are already seeing the loss of their reproductive rights.


“With HB2, the Texas legislature is trying to take that right away from Texas women. A dozen women’s health clinics have ceased providing abortions, including clinics in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “Thousands of women have been turned away, including hundreds with previously scheduled appointments. This is wrong. The federal government should step in to ensure that all Texas women have a chance to exercise their rights under the U.S. Constitution.”


Two Council members who were not authors of the letter also expressed their support.


Council Member Mike Martinez said what his colleagues are seeking is important.


“I agree with my colleagues that the Women’s Health Protection Act is an essential piece of legislation to prevent further interference with the personal decisions of women in Austin, Texas, and across the nation,” Martinez said. “I believe firmly that Roe v. Wade clearly establishes the constitutional right for a woman to determine her own destiny. In the past three years, we’ve seen more laws pass around the country restricting access to reproductive healthcare than in the past decade. The passage of HB2 last summer showed us how far lawmakers will go to play politics with women’s healthcare for the sake of their own professional gain.”


Council Member Kathie Tovo also expressed her support of the letter.


 Mayor Lee Leffingwell did not respond to a request for comment. Council Member Chris Riley said he had not seen the letter but indicated his support for the federal legislation and the repeal of Texas HB 2.

 (An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Riley failed to respond to a request for comment but he never received that query.)

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