The Abortion Bills of Freshman Rep. Shelby Slawson

Now that the 87th Texas Legislature is (kind of) over, it’s worth looking back at some of the work the freshmen members did in their first go-round. Today we look at State Rep. Shelby Slawson (R-Stephenville), most famous for authoring the “heartbeat bill” that will go into law in September. 

Slawson was part of a new wave of conservatives that toppled insurgents in the 2020 primaries, specifically J.D. Sheffield. Backed by Governor Greg Abbott, Slawson annihilated Sheffield by 20 points in a run-off after having touted a platform of securing the Texas border and expanding gun rights. 

By far, Slawson’s most impressive conservative accomplishment was authoring House Bill 1515, known as the heartbeat bill. Once it goes into effect, the law will prohibit abortion after six weeks of pregnancy except in cases of medical necessity. This is erroneously believed by many conservatives to be the point in pregnancy where a fetus’ heartbeat can be detected. In actuality, what is detectable is electrical activity along the cardiac pole, a small thickening next to the yolk sac that is not even kind of recognizable as a human heart. The law will also allow people to report others for seeking abortions outside the state after six weeks.

Slawson threw herself into crafting the bill, citing her beliefs as a Christian and a mother.  

“This is a tremendous advance for Texas in the pro-life movement,” she said in a Facebook live video from March. “It would provide that we will provide the unique universal sign of life that is a heartbeat…this is a very exciting time for us. We have a tremendous amount of support and momentum. Some things that we touch are of an eternal consequence, and this is one of them.”

What is interesting and worrying about the bill is that because of the way it is crafted, the usual challenges in the courts may be harder. Texas has a provision in the constitution that is designed to limit “frivolous” lawsuits, primarily by making plaintiffs in civil cases have to prove that they suffered a verifiable injury. Because the actions in the law are relegated to provide civil ones, many experts believe that will limit a group like Planned Parenthood’s ability to raise a legal objection. 

“The Texas Constitution has minimum requirements to maintain a civil legal action,” attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel told Spectrum News 1, “And it allows access to our courts for a person who has had an injury done to them. I’ve seen a quote that I think is really interesting from [Texas Supreme Court] Justice Willett. He said that, in Texas, the standing doctrine requires a concrete injury to a plaintiff. They have to be personally injured and plead those facts. I think that at a basic level of Texas law, this statute does not prescribe or require that. And I think that’s where they’re going to run into some real issues.”

Abortion was certainly on Slawson’s mind in a lot of ways in the 87th Legislature. She authored, sponsored, or co-sponsored more than ten bills dealing with abortion in her first session.

In addition to HB 1515, she authored an attempt to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot which would have asserted abortion was not a constitutional right in Texas. House Joint Resolution 80 had little hope of becoming law, even in a Republican-dominated congress, due to the fact that it is in clear violation of current federal law. It was referred to the State Affairs Committee and promptly ignored. 

One of the more bizarre bills that Slawson co-sponsored was House Bill 4527. It would have required police to undergo a one-hour training course in how to investigate cases where pregnant minors were forced into abortion. There is scant evidence that this ever occurs in meaningful numbers, and the most famous legal challenges involving the abortions of minors have involved them having the right to make such a decision without parental authority. The bill was ultimately left pending in committee. 

Overall, Slawson’s work in the House has been consistently to make abortions harder to obtain in Texas, with a disturbing focus on involving law enforcement to punish people and institutions that aid in people exercising their reproductive freedoms. Whether her great success will ultimately survive is likely to be decided next summer when a similar bill from Mississippi will be ruled upon. If the conservative majority decides to scrap the legal precedent that states cannot prohibit abortion before the fetus can survive outside the womb, then Slawson will have won a stunning victory for the anti-abortion movement.

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