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Letter Urges HHSC to Block Abortion-Related Proposal

Democratic legislators have asked the health commissioner to halt a proposed rule, stemming from legislation introduced by Rep. Bill Zedler, that would require women seeking abortions to report more personal information.

Former state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, on the Texas House floor in 2007

A letter from 10 Democratic state senators is urging Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs to kill a proposed HHSC rule that would require women seeking abortions to submit to more rigorous questioning. The proposal would also require abortion providers to report complications that follow the operation.

The letter, dated June 25, says the rule “does not represent the will of the legislative body.” If implemented, the rule would be a new interpretation of the Texas Department of State Health Services' existing powers.

The proposal stems originally from legislation that state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, proposed in March 2011. Zedler’s original bill, House Bill 1602, failed to leave committee, but he then proposed the rule in the form of an amendment on Senate Bill 7, a major health reform bill. The amendment did not appear in the final bill.

The proposed rule came to DSHS and HHSC because of a committee compromise to move SB 7 forward, said HHSC spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman. Members of the bill's conference committee worried that Zedler’s amendment, which had approval from the House but not the Senate, could keep SB 7 from passing before the end of the legislative session. To keep the bill from stalling, Goodman said, HHSC agreed to see if any parts of the amendment could be enforced through the existing health and safety code.

If implemented, the rule would have women report information about their educational level and whether they viewed a sonogram, in addition to data like birth year, race, marital status and home county. Currently abortion clinics are required to submit reports on each operation performed, though the reports cannot contain information that could identify the women.

Goodman said Monday's letter is “part of the public process” that accompanies revising HHSC procedure. Suehs will look at the letter and “other comments we’ve received as well” before deciding whether HHSC should further consider the rule.

The letter said the proposed rule skirted the legislative process.

“We should not allow the political agenda of a single member to circumvent the democratic process and the will of the legislature,” it read. “If this rule is published and adopted, it sets a terrible precedent and will have serious ramifications for years to come.”

Zedler said the data he wants reported is already collected by abortion clinics but isn't passed along to the state. 

He began to consider working with HHSC while the amendment was still up for debate, he said. Zedler looked at what powers the agency has and concluded that most of what he wanted to legislate was "certainly within their prerogative."

“Clearly they have the authority to do it,” he said of HHSC. “They don’t need the legislation.”

Not all elements of the amendment appear in the proposed HHSC rule, Zedler said, though he added that he did not know what ended up being included and what was left out. 

Under HHSC procedure, the rule, which the Department of State Health Services Council approved for discussion on June 14, would, pending HHSC approval, be published in the Texas Register for 30 days. During that period, Texans could comment on the proposed rule. DSHS and HHSC would factor that input into their final decisions on what kind of policy to implement.

But even if Suehs does not halt the proposed rule, there is still no guarantee it will ultimately be implemented, Goodman said.

“Even ones we post for public comment, it doesn’t mean they’ll move forward,” she said.

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