HHSC is all in on the omnibus anti-abortion bill passed during the special session this summer.
Texas health officials have a message for the more than 19,000 folks who wrote in to oppose new abortion regulations: Each individual commenter failed to show that clinics will close or that women will face an undue burden under the rules.
In what amounts to a robust defense of Texas’ sweeping new abortion law, the state Health and Human Services Commission is set to publish responses to the crush of public comments it received while wrapping up the last set of regulations for House Bill 2.
Final rules go live Friday in the Texas Register to spell out how the state will implement a portion of the law that requires clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. That document will contain a 16-page preamble to directly address the 19,000-plus commenters who asked regulators to amend the rules to prevent potential widespread clinic closures by carving out waivers for existing facilities
As expected, however, the commission earlier this month gave its blessing to a set of final rules that ignored those requests and instead adhered strictly to legislative intent.
In the document, state health officials argue the new standards will improve patient safety and said the rules are not intended to punish abortion clinics and do not “pose a substantial obstacle to a woman who seeks an abortion in Texas.”
The agency also pointed a finger back at the people who wrote in, saying individual commenters failed to produce even a shred of evidence proving the new rules would cause an undue burden for women seeking an abortion.
“The department is aware of no comments that explain how particular abortion-seeking patients will face unconstitutionally long travel distances, unconstitutionally long wait times, or unconstitutionally high costs for abortion services in any particular part of the state,” according to a copy of the final rules obtained by the Express-News.
The rules are here. It takes a special kind of willfulness to refuse to see any harmful effects of this dangerous and unnecessary legislation, but then these people are Rick Perry appointees, so they’re just doing their jobs. This story only reports on what HHSC was doing, so we go to this Trib story to hear from the folks on the sharp end of HHSC’s antics.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, executive director of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates five abortion clinics in Texas, called the department’s claim that it doesn’t know of any abortion clinics that have closed or will close “preposterous.” She emphasized that the new restrictions have already caused abortion facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, Killeen and Waco to stop performing abortions, leaving thousands of women without access to care.
“Women can still decide to terminate a pregnancy, but thousands of them can no longer actually access safe, professional medical care to receive that termination,” Miller said in an email to the Tribune. “A right is meaningless if you cannot act on it. Without providers, the right to an abortion is an abstraction that does not exist for thousands of Texan women.”
Abortion providers in Texas have challenged the constitutionality of two laws that took effect in November: the admitting-privileges rule and another requiring doctors to follow federal guidelines — rather than a common, evidence-based protocol — when administering drug-induced abortions. The rules finalized on Friday also require abortion facilities to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers starting in September.
Although six abortion facilities already qualify as ambulatory surgical centers, only three of them currently have a physician on staff with hospital admitting privileges. The department wrote in the rules that it’s aware of three ambulatory surgical facilities that abortion providers plan to open in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston by September.
As the case moves through the courts, roughly a third of abortion providers operating in Texas have discontinued abortion services because they do not have a physician with hospital admitting privileges. Some facilities that discontinued services when the law first took effect now have physicians who have obtained hospital admitting privileges, such as the Whole Woman’s Health facility in Fort Worth.
Planned Parenthood was forced to stop performing abortions at four facilities in Texas when the new law took effect in November because those facilities do not have physicians with such privileges. Planned Parenthood facilities that offered abortions in Bryan, Midland and San Angelo have also recently closed.
Although the finalization of the new rules are a “deeply troubling development,” said Sarah Wheat, vice president of community affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the organization would continue to evaluate its options and take steps to secure women’s access to health services.
“These restrictions will do nothing to protect women’s health and safety, which is why doctors and leading medical groups — as well as thousands of Texans — opposed them,” Wheat said in a statement. “By cutting off access to safe, high-quality medical care, these restrictions will endanger women’s health and safety.”
I suppose one could claim there’s a difference between closing down a clinic that provided abortion services and simply forcing that clinic to stop providing those services, but I daresay it’s a distinction that would be lost on the women who no longer have access to those services. It also rather egregiously ignores the stated intent of Rick Perry, Dan Patrick, and a huge swath of other Republican elected officials, which is to outlaw abortion in Texas, if not in the actual statutes then in the effect of them. If HB2 doesn’t fulfill that goal, then I guarantee you they’ll be back with another bill next session. There’s no end game here – if they succeed at making abortion illegal or impossible, they’ll move on to closing down Planned Parenthood or restricting access to birth control or something else. There will always be something next on their list.
The one thing that won’t be on their list is working to improve health care for women. They claim that that was that goal of HB2, but an amicus brief filed by the American Medical Association and the American College of Gynecologists on behalf of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against HB2 puts the lie to that. From the brief these medical groups filed:
H.B. 2 does not serve the health of women in Texas, but instead jeopardizes women’s health by restricting access to abortion providers and denying women well-researched, safe, evidence-based, and proven protocols for the provision of medical abortion.
The privileges requirement imposed by H.B. 2 does nothing to enhance the safety of, or healthcare provided to, women in Texas. There is no medically sound reason for Texas to impose a more stringent requirement on facilities in which abortions are performed than it does on facilities that perform other procedures that carry similar, or even greater, risks. Therefore, there is no medically sound basis for H.B. 2′s privileges requirement.
You can see the full brief here (PDF), or click the BOR link above for the highlights. The full appeal of HB2 before the Fifth Circuit is one of many high-profile lawsuits that will be heard beginning next week. There’s still a lot of this story to be told.