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Advocates urge House panel to amend fetal remains bill by outlawing abortion

What started as a state House committee hearing hearing on a bill that would require Texas hospitals to bury or cremate fetal remains turned into a heated debate over whether the proposal should be amended to abolish abortion completely.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, at a hearing on the disposal of fetal remains on March 8, 2017.

*Correction appended

What started as a state House committee hearing hearing on a bill that would require Texas hospitals to bury or cremate fetal remains turned into a heated debate over whether the proposal should be amended to abolish abortion completely.

House Bill 35 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, says that when an abortion or miscarriage takes place in a clinic or hospital, that facility would need to ensure the fetus is buried or cremated. Those that don't comply could face a fine or lose their license. Some hospitals already bury fetal remains, but others dispose of remains in sanitary landfills. 

The House State Affairs Committee did not vote on the measure on Wednesday.

Several abortion opponents who testified at the hearing — speaking on behalf of groups including Abolish Abortion Texas, West Texans for Life and the Abolitionist Society of Houston — said House Bill 35 doesn’t do enough since it still keeps abortion legal. Many gave an approving nod to a bill by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, House Bill 948, which would outlaw the procedure completely.

“House Bill 35 allows for babies to be continued to be killed but then requires their burial afterward. While I believe burials for miscarried babies is a wonderful thing, burying babies does not solve the problem of murder in our land,” Jim Baxa, who drove more than 350 miles from Lubbock to Austin to appear at the hearing on behalf of West Texans for Life, told The Texas Tribune.

Many who testified in front of the committee used their time to speak against abortion, a move that seemed to annoy Cook and state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto.

“Truly, we’ve got to stick to this bill. If you can’t, we’re going to have to ask you to not come up and testify,” Cook said during the hearing. “Your testimony has to be on [House Bill 35].”

Cook continued: “You’re hurting your cause by not speaking on this bill. You will have plenty of time to speak on other bills, but this is not the time to get off message. This bill is good. If it’s not good, then tell us what’s wrong with this bill.”

The bill would create a registry of organizations that can help pay for burial or cremation of fetal remains. That way, the cost associated with burials would not fall on women, Cook said.

The measure would not apply to miscarriages that happen at home.

“Let me be clear: this bill has nothing to do with abortion procedures whatsoever. It has everything to do with ensuring the dignity of the deceased,” Cook said Wednesday. “We believe Texas can do better than this.”

Cook said he's opposed to a current method of disposal that allows for grinding up fetuses and disposing of them in sanitary landfills.

“What we’re doing is removing a very objectionable method of disposal. The good news is I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks grinding would be an acceptable method [of disposal]," Cook said. "We’re just really taking off the books something that should be objectionable to everybody.” 

However, Cook was challenged during the hearing by state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who said the Republican should revise his bill to outlaw the disposal methods he doesn’t like without mandating burial.

“I think if you want to delete that language, you can delete that language without creating a burial requirement,” Farrar said. “I think we can find a way that is, in some people’s minds, more humane without creating burdens for women.”

Committee members asked Cook how his bill would impact women’s mental health and how much it would cost.

Jennifer Allmon, who spoke on behalf of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, said her group has volunteered to handle disposition of remains for free. During her testimony, Allmon said she believed there would be plenty of organizations willing to pay for fetal burials. She also praised Cook for the inclusion of a registry in HB 35.

“What if someone doesn’t want to be buried by the Catholic Church? This registry addresses that and allows other providers to come forward,” Allmon said. “Fundamentally this is about showing proper respect for the dead, and we believe that stems from proper respect for the living.”

Wednesday’s hearing comes weeks after U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled Texas cannot require health providers to bury or cremate fetuses.

Sparks wrote in January that a fetal remains burial rule the Texas Department of State Health Services planned to implement was vague and had the potential for irreparable harm.

“The lack of clarity in the Amendments inviting such interpretation allows [the Department of State Health Services] to exercise arbitrary, and potentially discriminatory, enforcement on an issue connected to abortion and therefore sensitive and hotly contested,” Sparks said.

Cook also filed a separate fetal remains bill, House Bill 201. That measure is similar to House Bill 35 but it would not create a registry of organizations to pay for the burials. There is also a similar proposal in the Senate.

House Bill 201 echoes a recent proposal from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, made at the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott.

Medical leaders and reproductive rights activists have vehemently opposed the health commission’s proposal, questioning why it doesn’t allow exceptions for miscarriages or other pregnancy complications that make a fetus non-viable.

Read related Tribune coverage: 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a representative for Texans for Life said that House Bill 35 didn't go far enough.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Abortion Byron Cook Texas Legislature