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Perry's Anti-Abortion Stance Has Grown More Insistent

Photo illustration by Caleb Bryant Miller/Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

In the spring of 1999, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini approached then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry on the chamber floor, wielding a green vote tally card. Zaffirini, a Catholic, anti-abortion Democrat from Laredo, had taken a count, she told Perry, and the Senate was just a couple of votes away from passing a bill requiring parental consent for a minor to have an abortion. 

With a little persuasion, she told Perry, he could get those votes. Instead, Perry continued working to pass a less stringent measure, Zaffirini says, one that required parents be notified before a minor terminated a pregnancy — but not grant their permission.

“I interpreted it as a lack of commitment, a lack of understanding,” said Zaffirini, a nearly 25-year veteran of the state Senate. “Really, a lack of interest.”

It’s likely the last time anyone felt that way about Perry and his opposition to abortion.

In the nearly 11 years since Perry became governor, he has thrown his support behind at least six high-profile anti-abortion bills, including measures to require a 24-hour waiting period and — six years after Zaffirini did her vote-counting — to make minors get permission from their parents before seeking an abortion.

On Tuesday, Perry's efforts hit a significant obstacle when a federal judge granted a temporary injunction against major provisions of the state's new abortion sonogram law, saying it violated the free speech rights of women and their doctors.

“Every life lost to abortion is a tragedy," Perry said in a statement, calling the ruling "a great disappointment to all Texans who stand in defense of life."

Over the years, Perry's public opposition to abortion has grown ever-more emphatic, coinciding with runs for re-election in an increasingly red Texas, and now for the 2012 GOP nomination for the presidency, where he faces candidates with similarly forceful anti-abortion views.

National Right to Life President Carol Tobias said the governor's position on abortion couldn't be any more in line with her organization’s tenets. “Gov. Perry has a wonderful pro-life record,” she said.

“In Rick Perry’s Texas, politics trumps sound science,” said Ted Miller, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The end result [of his tenure] is more political interference and less freedom and privacy for women in his state.”

Perry is no Johnny-come-lately to the anti-abortion movement, and his general ethos hasn’t changed: He opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. "The governor has always been pro-life and has a strong pro-life record," his spokesman Mark Miner said.

But Perry's position on abortion didn’t come into play in his early years in elective office. It was a non-issue in his race for agriculture commissioner and, later, in his race for lieutenant governor, where his opponent, Democrat (and Roman Catholic) John Sharp, also opposed abortion.

In 1999, during Perry’s single term as lieutenant governor, with then-Gov. George W. Bush honing his conservative credentials in preparation for a presidential run, the two presided over the overwhelming passage of the bill requiring parents to be notified before their minor child could have the procedure. While it did not go as far as Zaffirini had hoped, it was the most significant abortion legislation state lawmakers had passed in two decades.  

“I think our whole message needs to be, whether you are a pro-choice or pro-life individual, we’ve got too many abortions in Texas,” Perry said at the time.

By 2002, in his successful re-election bid against Democrat Tony Sanchez, Perry had stepped up his rhetoric on the campaign trail, calling human life “a sacred gift from our creator” that should be preserved at all costs. In the 2003 legislative session, with a newly empowered Republican majority in the House, Perry pushed for several new anti-abortion initiatives.

He signed the Women’s Right To Know Act, an abortion counseling law that, among other things, requires doctors to tell women there are alternatives to abortion, and provide them with material warning the procedure might increase their risk for breast cancer. And he signed a bill requiring a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could terminate a pregnancy. 

The following session, in 2005, he successfully pushed for legislation requiring written parental consent before a minor could get an abortion. Perry, preparing for his 2006 re-election bid, signed the bill into law in a church school, and his campaign invited thousands of his “pro-family Christian friends” to attend. After a significant public outcry, his campaign decided not to film the event for a television commercial. 

No major abortion legislation passed in the 2007 session, perhaps due to distractions like Perry’s failed attempt to require adolescent girls to get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, the leading cause of cervical cancer.

After Perry spent the 2008 presidential cycle explaining his endorsement of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — a supporter of abortion rights — he came into the 2009 session asserting his anti-abortion credentials, including backing “choose life” specialty license plates to raise money for pregnant women turning to adoption over abortion. (The measure failed that session.) 

In the lead-up to the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, in which Perry trounced U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a supporter of some abortion rights, he said: “If there’s been a more pro-life governor in Texas history, I’d be hard-pressed to name who that was.”

As the 82nd legislative session got under way earlier this year, with GOP lawmakers largely in control and a presidential bid mere months away, Perry declared abortion sonogram legislation an emergency item, clearing the way for its early passage. “We can’t afford to give up the good fight until the day Roe v. Wade is nothing but a shameful footnote in our nation’s history books,” Perry said in January.

The bill, which requires doctors to perform a sonogram and describe the fetus at least 24 hours before a woman has an abortion, passed — as did a holdover from the previous session, the “choose life” license plates. On Tuesday, a federal district judge upheld the requirement that sonograms be performed, but struck down the language requiring doctors to describe the fetus to the woman. The state will appeal the ruling.  

Earlier this summer, some conservatives questioned Perry's anti-abortion stance, referring to statements in his 2010 book Fed Up! and comments on the campaign trail that the governor believed in the right of the states to regulate abortion. Perry quickly reframed his position, saying he favored a constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion, and signed the Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-abortion pledge, vowing, among other things, to only name anti-abortion appointees to cabinet positions.

As president, Miner said Perry would only further this anti-abortion stance, working to ensure no federal dollars pay for abortions, and to strip "the more than $300 million that currently flows to Planned Parenthood." The governor would "only appoint judges who respect the Constitution," Miner said. 

What worries NARAL's Miller about Perry is his determination. Miller said that ideologically, there’s little difference between the position of Bush and Perry on abortion — but that Perry’s tone feels much more vehement.

“When you look at this field,” Miller said of the GOP candidates for president, “there’s no such thing as a moderate.”

Emily Ramshaw investigates state agencies and covers social services for KUT's political reporting partner, the Texas Tribune. Previously, she spent six years reporting for The Dallas Morning News, first in Dallas, then in Austin. In April 2009 she was named Star Reporter of the Year by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Headliners Foundation of Texas. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she received a bachelor's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
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