Some Texas Republicans want an exception for rape in the abortion ban. That doesn't mean much.
Part 5 in a series on abortion in Texas. Find the rest of the series here.
Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is as conservative and "pro-life" as they come.
Since joining the Texas Senate in 2007, Nichols has supported landmark anti-abortion legislation in the state, including Senate Bill 8, which allows anyone to enforce the ban of abortions after about six weeks of gestation.
He also voted for a bill — now law — that makes doctors performing an abortion subject to felony charges and up to life in prison.
These bills prohibit the procedure unless the life of the mother is at risk. But in September, Nichols revealed a new stance on the issue.
“If I get a chance to vote for an exception to rape I would vote ‘yes,’” he said during the Texas Tribune Festival in September. “I think that instead of us telling women what they can do, I think we should ... show our support for the women of this state, the young families.”
That day Nichols became the first Republican senator to say publicly he’d be in favor of changing Texas’ abortion bans.
His comments came months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and after disturbing reports across the country — and in Texas — about pregnancy complications turning into life and death moments, because doctors were worried about breaking abortion laws.
There have also been reports of young rape victims being forced to have children.
In response, some Republican lawmakers who pushed for abortion bans are now saying they’d be open to add an exception provision for rape and incest.
Nichols is one of them.
“I hear a lot of wonderful stories of how somebody was raped and made the decision to keep that child and then adopt it out when it was born,” Nichols told The Texas Newsroom after the Tribune panel. “But I’ve also heard a lot of horror stories related to trauma, mental breakdowns, and things like that; it’s like the trauma of the rape is not over.”
But he doesn't have much power when it comes to reproductive health legislation since he’s not leading any committee that focuses on abortion bills.
Besides, Nichols doesn’t have the appetite to spearhead this fight. He said he will not author any bill during next year’s legislative session that would accomplish such change.
A political move
Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who has led the campaigns of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Congressman Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, said he’s not surprised by Nichols' reluctance.
“I think this is probably more of a campaign operation than a legislative push,” he said. “I think it’s more something that they’re doing in the election window to put their position out there for the public to know about.”
Additionally, the Republicans who support changing the law are doing so knowing that a GOP-led Legislature will not move forward with such a proposal, Steinhauser said.
In the unlikely case lawmakers pass an exception bill, it would be up to Gov. Greg Abbott, who's running for a third term, to sign it.
On the campaign trail, the Republican has not wanted to answer the question directly and has instead deflected to clarifying the law when it comes to the health of the mother.
“There’ve been some comments and even maybe some actions by some doctors that are not taking care of women who have an ectopic pregnancy or who have a miscarriage,” Abbott said in a recent interview with Dallas TV station WFAA. “That is wrong because neither of those are abortions.”
In other instances, when asked about an exception for rape, Abbott said his administration would “eliminate all rapists.”
Pushback from conservatives
Still, a handful of Republican lawmakers have publicly said they'd support adding an exception.
But many others, however, have refused to even address the issue.
The Texas Newsroom reached out to seven female lawmakers who sponsored the abortion bans — none of them replied to requests for an interview.
A reason might be the fear of political pushback from members of their own party, or anti-abortion organizations like Texas Right to Life.
The organization gives state lawmakers a rating based on their stances on abortion. Voting to ban the procedure gives a candidate a higher score — one conservatives can tout on the campaign trail.
Nichols has gotten 100% in years past. But after his comments in September, Texas Right to Life withdrew its endorsement.
Texas Right to Life PAC has suspended our endorsement of Texas State Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) until further notice. #TXLege (1/5)— Texas Right to Life (Text ProLife to 40237) (@TXRightToLife) September 26, 2022
John Seago, the president of Texas Right to Life, told The Texas Newsroom the organization has a rigorous endorsement policy, and that Nichols' actions mean something bigger for them.
“It exposes kind of a failure of understanding the pro-life position,” he said. “So, if someone is now openly supporting exceptions to protecting innocent human life in the womb, it really shows that there are some children that they don’t fully see as human.”
Seago said he wants those who are against abortion to do everything they can to continue preventing the procedure from happening.
During next year’s legislative session, he said, Texas Right to Life will be working with lawmakers to pass legislation that would strengthen the enforcement mechanisms of the state’s anti-abortion laws.
That includes stopping companies from mailing abortion-inducing drugs to Texans, as well as going after district attorneys who have said they will not prosecute those who violate abortion laws.
“Just because Roe v. Wade was overturned it doesn’t mean Texas is going to be abortion-free,” Seago said. “We really need some more tools on the table to actually stop them from happening.”