The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) will hear testimony on a new rule that could affect abortion providers and those seeking such services. The new state rules would require abortion clinics to bury or cremate any fetal tissue from a miscarriage or abortion – even at the earliest stages of pregnancy. HHSC proposed the change four days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas' abortion restrictions passed in 2013.
This hearing is the last chance for the public to give comments on the proposed regulations. More than 80 people signed up to testify at the hearings, including Trisha Trigilio, attorney for the ACLU of Texas. She says the requirements would single out abortion clinics for disposal that wouldn’t apply to any other medical procedures.
"What the actual effect of these regulations would be would be to put a higher cost in the hands of patients who are seeking abortions,” Trigilio says. “That's really important. Cost really matters here.”
Trigilio says three-quarters of women who are seeking abortion care live near or below the federal poverty line, at $11,770 a year.
“Forcing a woman who lives on that annual income to pay for an unnecessary burial or cremation," she says, "on top of the cost of the medical care she's seeking is very likely to push a safe abortion out of her reach."
Currently, fetal tissue is under the same disposal regulations as other human tissue. Multiple sanitary methods of disposing human tissue have proven safe, Trigilio says.
"What the Health and Human Services Commission seeks to do is eliminate all of those methods," she says.
Gov. Greg Abbott has been vocal about where fetal tissue should end up. The Austin American-Statesman reports that his office says the change in rules is part of the LIFE initiative, meant to “protect the unborn and prevent the sale of baby body parts” and affirming the “value and dignity of all life.”
"Both Governor Abbott and Commissioner (Charles) Smith – the head of the Health and Human Services Commission – have been bragging in the media about their actual intent for these regulations,” Trigilio says. “They've both admitted that these regulations are not about advancing public health. Advancing public health is the only thing that this agency is actually authorized to be doing and it's very clear that the governor and the commissioner are using this agency to accomplish their own personal moral agenda."
Trigilio says that the publication of the new regulations just four days after the Supreme Court decision is a “serious disrespect for the Supreme Court’s ruling about the constitutional rights of Texas women.”
"Frankly, that's really stunning,” Trigilio says. “What we're talking about here is access to healthcare. We're talking about dignity for Texas women and we're talking about a very serious issue where there could be ultimately life or death safety concerns because women just can't get the medical that they need."
Similar regulations on fetal tissue disposal have been passed in Indiana and Louisiana, where there the rules have been respectively enjoined and challenged in the courts. Trigilio says it's possible Texas rules could go the same route, but she’s hopeful HHSC will change the rules after Thursday’s testimonials.
"We hope that they listen to reason, that they see the parallels between Texas' abortion laws that have already been struck down and this regulation,” she says. They're both unnecessary health regulations that burden access to abortion for no reason other than to block women from accessing medical care. … That's just not constitutional."