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Texas OKs Disputed Abortion Legislation

Times Staff Writer

Texas approved one of the nation’s most sweeping abortion counseling laws Wednesday, requiring doctors, among other things, to warn women that abortion might lead to breast cancer.

That link, however, does not exist, according to the American Cancer Society and federal government researchers, and critics say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate, frighten and shame women who are seeking an abortion. Proponents say they are merely trying to give women as much information as possible, and argue that research into the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer remains inconclusive.

After years of failed attempts to outlaw abortion outright, social conservatives across the nation are now finding success in limiting abortions by requiring so-called counseling of patients. Among the most aggressive tactics is the attempt to link abortion with breast cancer, a move that many conservative organizations have undertaken, but rarely with the success they have found in Texas.

“They don’t care what science says,” said Claudia D. Stravato, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle. “It’s like talking to the Flat Earth Society.”

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The bill’s author, state Rep. Frank Corte Jr., a San Antonio-area Republican, titled the bill the Women’s Right to Know Act.

“This is an issue that many folks see as something we need to do,” Corte said. “We think these are standards that should be set.”

In all, 29 state legislatures have introduced 64 counseling proposals this year. Legal experts who track trends in the debate said those types of proposals are now introduced and discussed in the nation’s statehouses more than any other abortion legislation.

Several states have certain restrictions that are more aggressive than those contained in the Texas law. But Texas, by incorporating pieces of other states’ laws, has packaged together one of the most comprehensive such laws to date, legal experts on both sides of the debate said.

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The Republican-controlled Texas Senate approved the bill Wednesday; the state House had previously passed it. Gov. Rick Perry’s office said he “supports the concept,” and he is expected to sign it into law.

The Texas law requires women to wait through a 24-hour “reflection” period before they receive an abortion, making Texas the 18th state with that law on the books. Supporters say that provision will help ensure that women are making the right decision. Opponents point out that abortion services are only available in 15 of Texas’ 254 counties, and say the waiting period will be a hardship for women from rural areas who have to travel long distances for health care.

‘Just Cruel,’ Critic Says

The law also requires doctors or clinics to offer women written materials containing everything from a list of adoption agencies to a reminder that fathers are typically liable for paying child support. Women would be offered photographs approximating what their fetus looks like -- color photographs, as specified by the law. Democrats’ attempts to exempt victims of rape or incest from having to view the photos were defeated, which is “just cruel,” said Peggy Romberg, executive director of the Women’s Health and Family Planning Assn. of Texas.

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The bill requires abortions performed after 16 weeks of pregnancy to be conducted in ambulatory surgical centers or hospitals, where safety standards are higher, supporters say, but where costs associated with having an abortion quadruple, women’s health advocates say.

Finally, the bill requires doctors to offer women information warning them that abortion can increase the risk of breast cancer. Texas becomes one of a handful of states, including Mississippi and Minnesota, with such laws on the books.

Kimberlee M. Ward, a staff attorney with NARAL Pro-Choice America, the group formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said abortion opponents are finding success in pursuing counseling laws because of the way the laws are packaged. By framing them as measures that are helpful to women, abortion opponents have made these proposals more palatable to the public, she said.

“Even though there are states that are trying to ban abortion outright, that is seen as a fringe effort,” Ward said. “Anti-choice advocates see this as a way to whittle away at abortion rights.”

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Since the 17th century, when scientists learned that nuns suffered breast cancer at a disproportionate rate, researchers have debated the health effects of pregnancy.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes breast cancer, but some believe that hormonal changes associated with the final stages of pregnancy can help protect a woman from breast cancer. Others have argued that breast cells might become vulnerable to cancer if those hormones do not develop, a notion that social conservatives have seized upon.

Doctors will have to offer all women information about the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer -- even if they have had children previously and, therefore, have developed the hormones.

In February, the National Cancer Institute -- the federal government’s cancer research organization -- asked more than 100 of the world’s experts to review more than 30 studies that have been conducted and attempt to resolve the issue. Their conclusion: Having an abortion “does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” The American Medical Assn. has not taken a formal position on the issue, but most large health-care organizations, including the American Cancer Society, agree with that conclusion.

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“The American Cancer Society’s reputation as a source of information for the public is just critical to our mission. We’re not going to mislead people about this,” said Mary Coyne, a board member of the society’s Texas division. “We spend $100 million a year on research. We know what we’re talking about. There is just no research that supports this claim.”

Corte, who has a professional background in property management, said he believes that conclusion is “flawed.”

“It’s not most of the experts. It’s some of their experts that make a lot of noise about it,” said Elizabeth Graham, associate director of the Texas Right to Life Committee Inc., an antiabortion group. “If women are going to make the decisions, that’s fine. Our goal is to help them make an informed decision.”

Women, Corte said, “need to be aware that it’s still disputed.”

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The trouble is, among the vast majority of physicians, it’s not disputed, said Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, a Houston physician who performs abortions.

“There is absolutely no medical validity to this,” Rosenfeld said Wednesday night. “Nobody seriously believes this.”

Carol J. Stahl, an Amarillo resident who sits on Planned Parenthood’s board of directors, said proponents of the bill are well aware that the medical community has settled the issue.

“They must be extremely cynical people to refuse to accept facts and to depend on scaring people to pass their agenda,” she said.

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In Texas, the abortion bill has been around in one form or another for 10 years. For the last six years, Corte couldn’t even get it out of committee. This year, it has sailed through the Legislature -- and has become a symbol of change in Austin, where Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and control the state House and Senate simultaneously for the first time in 130 years.

New Power Dynamic

The nation acquainted itself with that new power dynamic last week, when 55 Democrats left the state and boycotted the Legislature. The maneuver kept the House from establishing a quorum, killing the GOP’s attempt to redraw the state’s congressional districts. The new maps could have allowed Republicans, in the 2004 election, to seize at least five seats currently held by Democrats.

“In past legislative sessions, conservative Republicans would introduce bills like this knowing there was no chance to get them through, because Democrats controlled the House. They would introduce them so they could say to their constituents that they made a good partisan try,” said Cal Jillson, an independent, nonpartisan analyst and professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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The Republicans’ newfound power in Texas, the nation’s second-most populous state, comes with added responsibility, Jillson said -- a lesson that can be drawn from this bill, he argued. If Republicans go overboard because they are blinded by power it could blunt their long-term ability to advance their agenda, he said.

“In a sense, they have to be more careful because they can pass what they introduce,” he said. “There will be a bright light shined on this bill. They should have left this very shaky connection out of the bill.”

Joel Brind, a professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, is an outspoken proponent of the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer.

Brind, who said he is opposed to abortion, said Texas has merely corrected an “egregious wrong” -- the fact that clinics are not required to warn prospective patients about abortion and breast cancer.

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“This is the kind of thing that is politically incorrect,” he said. “It gets caught up in the whole abortion debate. I can see the Republicans saying, ‘Now we are in the majority; now we have a chance to right a glaring and egregious wrong.’ But how do you not do this? That would be anathema to anybody who got themselves into office with an honest concern to do some good for the people of Texas.”


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