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A Texas bill would allow the death penalty for patients who get abortions

The bill is unlikely to pass, but it’s part of a larger trend.

Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on January 18, 2019 in Washington, DC
Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on January 18, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

A bill recently introduced in Texas would make it possible for women to get the death penalty for having abortions.

The bill would criminalize all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest, and would make it possible to charge a woman with homicide for having the procedure, according to the Washington Post. The state of Texas allows capital punishment for homicide.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican state legislator who introduced the bill, says it would make people “consider the repercussions” of having sex.

“My bill simply accomplishes one goal,” Tinderholt said in a statement to media on Wednesday. “It brings equal treatment for unborn human beings under the law.”

The bill, which was discussed at a hearing on Monday, is unlikely to pass. And it falls far outside the mainstream of the anti-abortion movement, which has generally opposed punishing women for having abortions. “I am absolutely appalled by any proposal that would suggest prosecuting a woman for seeking an abortion or obtaining an abortion,” Catherine Glenn Foster, president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, told Vox.

But the bill may be part of a larger drive by abortion opponents to introduce laws that could lead to a challenge to Roe v. Wade. And reproductive rights activists fear that Tinderholt’s proposal is a preview of what could happen if the landmark abortion decision is overturned.

“Clearly it is a terrifying example of the lengths the anti-choice GOP are willing to go to punish women,” Adrienne Kimmell, the vice president of communications and strategic research at NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Vox.

The Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act would make abortion a crime, with no exceptions

The bill, called the Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act, would remove an exception for abortion from the Texas penal code for homicide, according to the Texas Observer. That means women who seek the procedure could be prosecuted for murder, and potentially sentenced to death.

The act includes no exceptions and directs authorities to ignore any conflicting federal laws.

“The 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantee due process of law to take an individual’s life,” Tinderholt said in his statement. To exempt women who get abortions from criminal penalties “would inherently treat unborn children differently than other people who are murdered.”

Tinderholt first introduced the legislation in 2017. That year, he told the Observer it would reduce unplanned pregnancies.

“Right now, it’s real easy,” he said. “Right now, they don’t make it important to be personally responsible because they know that they have a backup of ‘oh, I can just go get an abortion.’ Now, we both know that consenting adults don’t always think smartly sometimes. But consenting adults need to also consider the repercussions of the sexual relationship that they’re gonna have, which is a child.”

In 2017, the bill was referred to the Texas House State Affairs Committee, and never received a public hearing. But Tinderholt reintroduced the bill in the state’s current legislative session, and on Monday, lawmakers heard public testimony on it for the first time, according to the Washington Post.

“A woman who has committed murder should be charged with murder,” Jim Baxa, president of West Texans for Life, said at the hearing.

Tinderholt, meanwhile, said he was honored by interest in the bill and added, “I think we set an example for Washington, D.C.”

Leaders of several nationwide anti-abortion groups, however, condemned the bill.

“We oppose this legislation which would only further injure women, families, and communities damaged by abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, in a statement to Vox. “Women and men who have experienced abortion, especially those who may have felt they have no other choice, deserve a message of hope and healing.”

“This is not something that represents the ethos or the desire or the will of the pro-life community at large,” said Foster of Americans United for Life. “It’s something that I would fight back against and everyone I know in the movement would fight back against.”

It’s part of a larger move toward stricter abortion laws

Historically, anti-abortion groups have not pushed for criminal penalties for women who get abortions. Even strict laws like Georgia’s recent “heartbeat” bill, which would ban abortions as early as six weeks, punish doctors who perform the procedure, not women who receive it.

“When a woman is seeking an abortion, more times than not I think it’s an indication that she does need some kind of support,” Foster said. “We need to be coming alongside her and listening to her and hearing her story and saying, what can we do to help you?”

But recently, the idea of punishing women has become more common. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump said “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. And lawmakers in Idaho and Ohio have proposed bills that would prosecute women for terminating pregnancies.

Those bills haven’t passed, but such efforts may be part of a larger drive by abortion opponents to introduce strict laws with the hope of challenging Roe v. Wade. The appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, widely considered a potential deciding vote to overturn the decision, has kicked that process into high gear, according to Kimmell. Abortion opponents “are going further out on a limb knowing the makeup of the court,” she said.

A bill recently introduced in Alabama, for example, would ban abortion at any stage of pregnancy, unless a woman’s health is at risk.

“It simply criminalizes abortion,” Republican Alabama Rep. Terri Collins, the bill’s sponsor, said, according to the Associated Press. “Hopefully, it takes it all the way to the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, at the Texas hearing on Monday, supporters reportedly urged legislators to pass Tinderholt’s bill to give the anti-abortion agenda a chance before the Supreme Court.

The bill, which is opposed by the anti-abortion group Texans for Life as well as nationwide groups, is unlikely to become law. But the fact that it was introduced at all — and received a public hearing — may be a sign of the times.

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