State Representative Molly White has done it. The freshman Texas legislator—who never leaves home without a collection of tiny rubber fetuses with which to spread her anti-abortion message—has introduced an abortion bill so harebrained (but just barely), even fellow Texas Republicans and pro-life groups can’t back it.
White’s bill, HB1648, the “The Coerced Abortion Prevention Act,” would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to coerce or force a woman into having an abortion. It’s a problem White says she knows firsthand; at least one of the two abortions she had in her 20s was a direct result of “pressure” from the would-be father and her family members, according to her profile on the website for Women for Life International, White’s pro-life organization.
Though coercion isn’t actually defined in the bill, White stated before the committee that a person who commits coercion “expresses or implies threat of violence or intimidation to cause a pregnant woman to have or seek an abortion.” A woman’s indication or a provider’s conclusion that coercion has occurred before an abortion would trigger a mandatory 72-hour waiting period—up from the 24-hour waiting period already in place for non-coerced Texans. During that time, local law enforcement would have to conduct an investigation into the suspected coercion. If the pregnant woman is a minor, Child Protective Services would be called to investigate the incident as abuse.
“Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said as she introduced her bill to the Committee on State Affairs. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.” Texas law, she said, doesn’t explicitly protect these women, or minors at risk of pressure from parents or authority figures like coaches or sexual predators.
But White’s bill had problems, even among friends. She said she planned on amending the bill, anyway—to knock the waiting period down to 48 hours and to add resources for human-trafficking victims. But the head of the committee, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, and Texas Alliance for Life all expressed concerns: How would the waiting period trigger work? Might the extended waiting period clue an abusive boyfriend in that a woman had reported him?
“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Representative Byron Cook said, before sending the bill back to White’s desk for a rewrite. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”
According to White’s website, 20 states have enacted anti-coercion laws: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin. Americans United for Life, a pro-life lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., has provided the model legislation for most. According to the AUL, at least seven states considered measures related to coerced abortions in 2014. White, for reasons unknown, chose not to use the same model.
It’s telling that most of these laws are driven not by advocates for women but by the legal arm of the anti-abortion movement. At some point, anti-abortion advocates shifted their tactics. They’re still about protecting fetuses, of course, but increasingly, abortion restrictions are framed as helping women. For example, in courts, pro-life groups frame needlessly burdensome admitting privileges and stringent clinic rules as a way to improve patient care—then celebrate the closures of clinics as happy byproducts.
Though White’s bill is amateur, and she has made a name for herself with some questionable behavior in the past—notably, on Texas Muslim Capitol Day in January she left an Israeli flag on her desk with instructions for Muslims who visited her office to renounce terrorism and pledge allegiance to America—on first look, the idea behind an anti-coercion bill seems like a good one.
Since domestic violence is pervasive, it stands to reason that a large number of women who visit abortion clinics—about one in three women nationwide—will also be a victim of domestic violence. Estimates vary from 7.8 percent of pregnant women to 22 percent over the last year who have been victims of domestic violence.
Writing in the journal The Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, researchers noted the particular power gynecologists and abortion providers had to reach victims of domestic abuse—the ones Representative White’s bill purports to have in mind.
“Whereas pro-choice and pro-life lobbies may disagree about the moral status of the fetus (and thus the wrongs of abortion), there must be common ground that violence against pregnant women is intolerable,” they write. “Some women are pressurised into unwanted abortions, yet others are protected by abortion from continuing with unwanted pregnancies and are enabled to escape violent relationships.”
If White is indeed focused on protecting women, she’ll surely focus next on the women forced or tricked into pregnancy and childbirth as a way to tie them forever to their abusers—a phenomenon also backed by science so reputable that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) has recommended that ob-gyns screen patients for signs of pregnancy coercion.
But White’s focus on abortion clinics and the paternalistic protection offered only to women who might not choose abortion tips her hand in the end. The Republican who lists her occupation as “anti-abortion activist” on her state bio isn’t looking to help women, she’s trying to stop abortion. Reproductive coercion is real, but White’s bill doesn’t address it.
“Any waiting period is patronizing, but this bill’s indefinite waiting period is effectively a ban on abortion for anyone who mentions something that a physician could construe as coercion,” said Lenzi Sheible, president of Fund Texas Choice, a group that helps low-income women obtain abortions. “This bill does not even ask a patient whether they want to be subject to an investigation into their personal lives. This bill red-flags patients without their consent in spite of any objections a patient might have and forces them to carry a pregnancy to term for their own good.”
“Rather than respecting the autonomy of pregnant victims of coercion, this bill annihilates it.”