A proposed law to stop a gruesome abortion procedure has made its way through the Texas state legislature, but it is running into some surprising opposition from an organization that bills itself as pro-life.
A provision to ban the performance of dismemberment (also known as D&E and D&X) abortions, except in the case of a “medical emergency,” passed the state senate back in March and the House on Friday.
However, some of the opposition to the bill’s passage might surprise anyone not familiar with abortion politics in the Lone Star State. While pushback from major pro-abortion groups is to be expected, one pro-life group has been actively campaigning against the measure. Texas Alliance for Life, and its executive director, Joe Pojman, spent months leading up to the final House vote, recommending that the legislature reject the ban on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
For reference, this is exactly what happens during a dismemberment abortion:
During one of these procedures, the preborn child is ripped apart in utero before being pulled out through the birth canal piece-by-piece.
But efforts to ban the practice have been thus far opposed by Pojman’s group, which sent out a letter to state legislators urging them to vote against the measure.
Furthermore, for an organization that is dedicated to “protect[ing] innocent human life from conception through natural death through peaceful, legal means,” Texas Alliance for Life stood alone in its opposition to the bill, as several other pro-life organizations lined up behind the legislation.
If the measure were to become law, the letter speculates to lawmakers, “it would not survive a federal court challenge” because of rulings in previous cases, even though the ruling would occur in the 5th Circuit (which is perhaps the most friendly court in the federal system because of its makeup).
Empower Texans, a conservative state-level grassroots organization, explains on its website that Texas Alliance for Life’s Joe Pojman testified on the bill before the committee in February, and recommended that the legislature not pass it, alongside activists from the National Abortion Rights Action League, better known as NARAL.
“Pojman’s remarks today plant dangerous land mines in the way of any legal strategy to defend SB 415 if it passes and is challenged in court,” said Tony McDonald, Empower Texans’ general counsel, at the time. “Abortion groups will use Pojman’s testimony as a ‘confession’ that SB 415 is so ‘extreme’ that even pro-life groups are opposing it.”
And that very thing happened at the 11th hour.
Prior to the vote on Friday, Jessica Farrar, a staunchly pro-abortion Democrat state representative, invoked Pojman’s testimony while speaking in against the provision, which was attached as an amendment to a larger legislative package, on the House floor.
“Are you aware that Texas Alliance for Life testified against this bill in the senate committee?” Farrar publicly asked of Republican Representative Stephanie Klick, contending that the measure was “unconstitutional.”
Pojman responded to Empower Texans’ claims, calling them inaccurate and saying that his testimony was “on” the bill and that he did not take a side (before diving into his reasons for not supporting the bill).
Texas Right to Life Legislative Director John Seago disputes the assertions, however, saying that they are based on what he calls a “fundamental flaw their assessment of the policy” that runs parallel to many pro-abortion criticism of the legislation.
Counter to such judicial concerns, the prevailing reasoning among many pro-life advocates in favor of outlawing the procedure argues that – since the legislation bans a procedure outright – it would fall in line with the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling that upheld the 2003 national partial-birth abortion ban, off of which Seago says the current language in Austin is based.
“[Opponents] have read the bill and understand the bill to be prohibiting all D+E abortions,” Seago told Conservative Review. “That is a gross mischaracterization of the bill, just like the partial birth abortion ban doesn’t prohibit all late abortions; it prohibits one specific procedure.”
“Some pro-lifers are worried about going to court,” he says, admitting that any such litigation is a gamble on some level. “But we understand, the pro-life movement lives in the shadow of Roe v. Wade and the only way we’re going to take down this legal edifice is by working in the courts,” like it did with the partial-birth ban.
“That doesn’t worry us,” Seago said. “That’s how the movement has to move forward.”
“I can’t understand TAL’s objections to a dismemberment ban — I don’t get it at all,” says JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America, who has been a conservative activist in Texas for over 20 years.
“I’ve seen the objection about how the court will unravel it and this, that and the other, that and the other,” she adds, but “If we have to fight for life in the courts, then we simply take the fight to the courts. We don’t withdraw from that fight just because we might have to do battle in court.”
To Pojman’s assertions that the current legislation will not save any lives in effect, Seago points to similar criticisms made about the partial birth debate and of pain-capable bills, which have both proven to decrease abortion rates.
However, critics say aren’t surprised by TAL’s opposition to the ban, as they say the group has previously fought to either dilute or otherwise obfuscate pro-life legislation in the state. Republican Representative and Texas Freedom Caucus member Matt Rinaldi claims that the group has sought to water down other legislation before, such as the original version of a 2011 sonogram bill.
“They’ll pick bills [to support] that don’t really accomplish much,” explains Rinaldi. “They act as a cover group for leadership in killing pro-life reforms.”
Rinaldi tells Conservative Review that he views Texas Alliance’s efforts to weaken or oppose stronger pro-life bills as “disgusting,” mainly because they are supported by funds from pro-life donors.
“Their donors and supports don’t realize that they’re being had,” Rinaldi said. “I think it’s despicable.”
Responding to Rinaldi’s statements, Pojman put forward TAL’s list of legislative priorities this session, calling the agenda both “aggressive and substantive.”
“Our goal is to protect unborn children from abortions throughout pregnancy,” reads an emailed statement from Pojman to Conservative Review. “However, we do not recommend that the Legislature pass the dismemberment ban this session because it will not sustain an inevitable court challenge. There are not sufficient votes on the US Supreme Court to uphold it.”
Meanwhile, the group’s critics say, the organization also provides cover for establishment Republicans who would rather not take the heat for voting in favor of stronger pro-life legislation, but still want to don a pro-life mantle come election time.
Chronicling documented financial exchange between House leadership and TAL, Empower Texans’ executive director Michael Q. Sullivan wrote in a 2015 op-ed at Breitbart News that the group’s rhetoric about the pro-life bona fides of certain members of the legislative leadership – most notably state Speaker Joe Straus – did an “about face” following a large influx of cash to the nonprofit’s political action committee. Pojman responded to Sullivan, calling the assertions “misinformation.”
Disagreements over how to best protect the unborn, however, are not specific to a few policy groups in the Lone Star State nor a single dismemberment bill, Seago told CR. Rather, they are endemic of a tactical split in the pro-life movement as a whole.
Whereas some pro-life organizations develop their political priorities based on where the movement needs to go, he says, “Unfortunately, all I’ve seen some pro-life groups in Texas and other states do is show up and see what the politicians give them” and then tout those items as priorities.
“You can’t just give [elected officials] cover,” Seago says against this approach. “The pro-life movement really has to objectively determine where we need to go and then hold our politicians accountable.”
Editor's note: The piece has been updated to reflect the emailed statement from Pojman.