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The Battle for the (Pro)Life of the Texas GOP

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Many Texas Catholics who attended mass this past weekend had an up-close look at the ever-widening and ever-nastier split within the state’s antiabortion movement, which itself is a proxy for the fight for control of the Texas Republican Party.

What the parishioners heard or read was a refreshingly candid formal statement from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops entitled “Parish Advisory on Texas Right to Life.” The advisory called out Texas Right to Life (TRTL), the state’s largest antiabortion group, over its lobbying and political activities, and encouraged parishes “not to participate in their activities or allow the organization to use parish sites.”

The bishops remain staunchly antiabortion, but they’ve had enough of their erstwhile allies’ antics. Their advisory encourages “all Catholics to engage in pro-life legislative advocacy ... by supporting pro-life groups which engage in respectful legislative advocacy.”

Why is this important to Texas physicians? Here are four reasons:

  • Texas is a solid Republican state, with GOP majorities ensured in both chambers of the Texas Legislature at least through the 2021 session. The real fight is over who will wield the Republican Party’s power in Austin: business conservatives or tea party conservatives – who have been no friend to medicine.
  • The Texas Medical Association has no policy for or against abortion. Our formal policy simply says that TMA “recognizes abortion as a legal medical procedure, and the performance of abortion must be based upon early and accurate diagnosis of pregnancy; informed and nonjudgmental counseling; prompt referral to skillful and understanding personnel working in a good facility; reasonable cost; and professional follow up.” Nevertheless, TMA frequently enters (or gets dragged into) legislative debates on abortion when we oppose state interference with the patient-physician relationship.
  • The state’s main pro-life players, and their funders, are heavily involved in our priority issues as well. For example, TRTL consistently has pushed an agenda that seeks to neutralize physicians’ ability to protect their patients from treatment that imposes unnecessary suffering and pain in their final days.
  • TRTL and its allies (notably Empower Texans and the Texas Home School Coalition) are targeting some of medicine’s legislative champions with misinformation attacks that distort these lawmakers’ voting records.

Some North Texas physicians and political junkies might recall how TRTL knocked out former Sen. Bob Deuell, MD (R-Greenville), in the 2014 primaries by grossly mischaracterizing a bill that he carried. The bill actually enhanced patients’ and families’ legal protections. But that didn’t stop TRTL from twisting it around in order to oust a state senator – a warm and caring family physician -- who didn’t follow their every command.

This election cycle, the nasty action is coming in several House races. The incumbents were all supporters of House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, who is not running for reelection. TRTL, Empower Texans, and a few other groups are working to elect candidates for the House who will toe the line laid out by a handful of rich oil businessmen who want to control the legislature. 

One of their sleight-of-hand tactics is a vote on an amendment to Senate Bill 8 during the 2017 summer special legislative session. SB 8, which passed into law, sets new standards on the disposition of fetal remains and outlaws so-called “partial birth abortion.” All of the pro-medicine candidates who are being targeted by the TRTL campaign voted for SB 8. 

They didn’t, however, vote for the “Schaefer amendment” to the bill, and there’s the rub. The amendment, which was defeated, would have outlawed late-term abortions when the fetus has “a severe fetal abnormality” and would not survive at birth. The amendment was set up as a “scorecard vote,” forcing lawmakers to choose whether to fall in behind TRTL.

As an insightful column in the Amarillo Globe-News noted recently, “‘Severe fetal abnormalities’ [are] those rare instances for an abortion when a baby has no heart, or no brain, or any other vital organ, and will die moments after birth. It did not cover babies with Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, or other non-fatal diseases, but only those catastrophic conditions that define ‘a non-viable fetus.’ Of the 55,287 abortions in Texas in 2015, only 16 fit that category, or 0.03 percent.”

Allowing an abortion in such rare circumstances is the compassionate act, saving the unborn child the agony of trying vainly to survive outside of the womb.

The Texas Alliance for Life, another anti-abortion group, says the amendment “would likely not have saved a single baby from abortion.”

But that’s not the picture TRTL paints. In various commentaries attacking the lawmakers it is trying to oust, TRTL says the Schaefer amendment would “protect preborn children with disabilities from painful abortions after 20 weeks.” A House member’s vote against it, the organization says in its 2017 legislative scorecards (example), meant “demarcating loyalty to the ProLife cause or the anti-Life leadership of the Texas House.”

That scorecard was one of the motivations for the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops’ advisory.

“We believe this publication is not based on a fair analysis of a legislator’s work, but rather upon whether the legislator has followed voting recommendations of Texas Right to Life,” the bishops wrote. “Unfortunately, a number of legislators who have consistently voted for pro-life and end of life legislation have been opposed by Texas Right to Life.”

Texas Alliance for Life also has sprung to the defense of the targeted legislators, writing letters to the editor like this one for Rep. J.D. Sheffield, DO (R-Gatesville):

“In the race for Texas House District 59, we find it regrettable that State Rep. J.D. Sheffield’s opponent has chosen to attack Dr. Sheffield on the abortion issue, claiming he is not pro-life,” Joe Pojman, the group’s executive director, wrote. “That claim is false.”

“My organization, Texas Alliance for Life, is among the premier pro-life organizations in the state and has worked to pass pro-life bills in the Capitol for 30 years. We can say with certainly that Dr. Sheffield is solidly pro-life. He earned 100 percent on our Legislative Scorecard, and our PAC is proud to endorse him for re-election.”

Other incumbent legislators fighting this uphill battle against the well-funded TRTL attacks include State Reps. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), Ken King (R-Canadian), Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), Four Price (R-Amarillo), Hugh Shine (R-Temple), Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and Paul Workman (R-Austin). All of these lawmakers, by the way, have earned TEXPAC’s support.

Of course, you have to wonder just how much the TRTL scorecard really means to the group when you consider:


  • The organization endorsed the opponents of two incumbent Republican state senators (Craig Estes of Wichita Falls and Kel Seliger of Amarillo) and four GOP House members (Chris Paddie of Marshall, Dan Flynn of Van, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, and Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake) who compiled 100-percent TRTL voting records in the 2017 legislative session;
  • Two state senators and two representatives with 100-percent scores who are in competitive primaries got no TRTL endorsement; and
  • Four House members with less than 100-percent records received TRTL’s backing.


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