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Texas House, Senate advance smaller anti-abortion measures without emotion of last session

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AUSTIN, Texas — Abortion is again seizing the spotlight at the Texas Capitol — but largely only in small doses that haven't drawn the kind of heated debate and high emotion that dominated last session.

The House heard minimal discussion Wednesday before voting to mandate that abortion clinic personnel undergo training to prevent human and sex trafficking. The idea is that workers will better be able to spot it if any of their patients became pregnant after being forced into the sex trade.

The measure needs a final, largely ceremonial vote before clearing the House. But as the lower chamber was discussing it, the Senate cast a final vote approving a prohibition on covering abortions under insurance plans purchased through the federal marketplace.

More than two dozen states already have similar bans for coverage obtained through the Affordable Care Act, though, and the only drama came when Senators swatted away attempts to add exemptions for rape and incest.

There are fewer sweeping moves to make against abortion after state lawmakers imposed some of the toughest restrictions on the procedure in the country last session — despite a nearly 13-hour filibuster by Democrat Wendy Davis that sparked weeks of protests at the Capitol.

This year, abortion battles briefly flared up as part of amendments that conservatives have tried to attach to other bills on the House floor. But the only two major measures successfully passed by either chamber were the human trafficking and insurance coverage — and neither has drawn demonstrators.

Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Tomball Republican who sponsored the bill approved by the House, said it was "about human life and women being trafficked."

Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, has filed a separate bill to try to prevent women from undergoing coerced abortions, and even admitted that she underwent one herself amid family pressure decades ago. Her bill is languishing in committee, however.

White noted Wednesday that women in Texas who have been forced to prostitute themselves "are under extreme pressure" to have abortions they don't want. But even that suggestion failed to cause a stir.

Abortion-rights groups say roughly 17 clinics are currently left open for business in Texas. That number would fall by half if the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a portion of the 2013 law that requires abortion clinics to meet hospital-level operating standards.

Rep. Helen Giddings agreed that women — and in less-common cases, men and boys — being forced into sex trafficking was a growing problem statewide. But she questioned why Riddle's bill would apply only to 17 abortion clinics instead of emergency rooms, where victims of sex trafficking often go after being abused.

"This is a Band-Aid on the hip of an elephant," said Giddings, a Democrat from Dallas.

Riddle replied that she'd be willing to expand training to other health care workers, but doing so at abortion clinics is "a good start."

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