As of this week, both chambers have assigned their committees for the 87th Legislature. As a result, the “heartbeat bill” might have revived legislative prospects.
What is a “Heartbeat Bill”?
Legislation that makes abortions illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
A Brief History in Texas
Last legislative session, a “heartbeat bill” ( House Bill 1500, filed by State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R–Deer Park) garnered 4 joint-authors and 52 co-authors before even being referred to a committee (four others signed on as co-authors afterward). All of the authors who signed on were Republicans, accounting for almost 70 percent of the entire House Republican Caucus, yet former Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R–Angleton) referred the bill to the House Public Health Committee, which was chaired by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D–Houston) at the time. This movement almost certainly sealed the bill’s fate to going no further in the legislative process. Thompson is an outspoken pro-abortion advocate and the most senior Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives.
This led many pro-life advocates to ask how a bill with so many Republican authors could die in a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Prospects for this Session
Seemingly, the stars may be aligning—assuming the Republican-led Legislature follows through. The Texas House of Representatives recently announced committee assignments for the 87th Legislative Session, and among many notable shakeups from previous legislatures was that of a new chairman of the House Public Health Committee in State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R–Fort Worth). The overall committee membership is slightly changed as well; notably, all but one of the current Republican members (to include the chairman) were co-authors of the heartbeat bill from last session.
It is largely assumed that Cain will file a heartbeat bill again. Strikingly, Sen. Bryan Hughes (R–Mineola), chairman of the powerful Senate State Affairs Committee, mentioned at a committee meeting on December 8, 2020, that “there will be a strong push for a heartbeat bill” and that “Texas should not have waited this long.”
Recently, the Texas Freedom Caucus, of which Cain is a member, came out and named a heartbeat bill as one of their legislative priorities for this legislative session.
Though Gov. Abbott did not make preventing abortion an emergency item in his recent State of the State address, he did briefly highlight the issue by saying, “In this session, we need a law that ensures that the life of every child will be spared from the ravages of abortion.”
This session, freshman State Rep. Shelby Slawson (R–HD 59) filed a slightly different heartbeat bill in House Bill 1165. The major difference in her bill compared to Cain’s from 2019 is that it does not include a criminal penalty and stops short of specifically describing some of the requirements for a scenario in which an abortion would be induced.
Momentum seems to be on the side of pro-life advocates. Since the last session, 12 states have passed some version of a heartbeat bill into law to include that of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. Some of those laws are currently tied up in the courts, but they markedly represent a threat to pro-abortion advocates working to protect the Roe v. Wade decision.
The Republican Party of Texas adopted plank 324(e) into its platform and specifically cited support for a heartbeat bill. It also specifically named the abolition of abortion as one of its top legislative priorities.
Taking all of this into account, pro-life advocates are wondering whether a heartbeat bill will go further in the legislative process this session.