In this last legislative session, the one that turned out to be pretty terrible for both abortion providers and family planning clinics, Arlington state Representative Bill Zedler had a dream. That dream, as we told you about at the time, was to require women and their doctors fill out and submit to the state detailed questionnaires about their abortions, a laundry list of information that included details about the woman's educational history, previous abortions, her method of contraception, the reason for the abortion, how she was paying for it and the age of the father of her fetus, among other things. (It was, admittedly, sort of an odd dream.) And although the bill he authored to create that questionnaire failed, the reporting requirements now appear to be quietly creeping back to life.
To refresh, Zedler, who is a "no abortion even in cases of rape or incest" kind of guy, authored a bill, HB 1602 , that proposed both the abortion reporting form, as well as a second document, which reported any complications from an abortion. The bill also suggested criminal penalties for doctors who failed to submit the reports, submitted false information or who performed an abortion on a woman who was being coerced into having the procedure.
The bill ultimately died in committee, but suddenly, as former Observer-er Andrea Grimes reports over on RH Reality Check , Zedler's goals are being revived in another form. The Department of State Health Services told a group of abortion providers in Austin last week the agency is collecting public comment on "updated reporting requirements." Why? Because Zedler asked them to.
Grimes reports that the meeting was called to update a group of providers, clinic workers and pro-choice activists on a few things: the implementation of the new mandatory sonogram law, the exclusion of Planned Parenthood from the Medicaid Women's Health Program, and, as a DSHS rep, Renee Clack, put it, "some amendments the department has included that specifically relate to a request by Representative Zedler." Although Zedler's bill didn't pass, DSHS staffers told the group, the department still has the authority to change the reporting requirements, and now they've decided to do so.
"The draft language we presented at the meeting is a starting-off point," says DSHS rep Carrie Williams, "and entirely open for discussion at this point." Those proposed requirements aren't quite as lengthy as the ones Zedler proposed; they merely ask, among other things, for the type of abortion procedure performed, the period of gestation, the date of the patient's last menstrual period, her previous live births and abortions, her educational level, the method of pregnancy verification and the method used to dispose of "fetal tissue and remains."
Williams confirms that the department started looking at new requirements at Zedler's request, but insists that's not the only reason. "We did agree to take a look at it and we do have the authority to do it," she told us. "But we also believe that there could be real value in gathering additional information, and the value is in the regulatory perspective it can provide, and also the trend analysis."
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Basic biographical information is already collected from each patient, and abortion facilities are already required to report complications that result in a third-trimester or emergency abortion. That's the type of data that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks for from each state for the center's abortion-reporting statistics. Until this year, Texas hasn't seen fit to change the requirements at all.
According to Deva Cats-Baril, a doula-in-training and pro-choice activist who attended the meeting, the providers wanted to know what specifically was meant by "complication" and why these requirements were suddenly being changed now. Several also were worried they were being asked to divert clinic resources away from patient care and towards producing more paperwork. Cats-Baril fears that such requirements are meant to "intimidate small and mid-level clinics and hospitals from providing abortion care."
But Williams says the new data wouldn't compromise patient privacy and couldn't be used to target physicians in any way. "State law does not allow release of abortion data in such a way that a patient, doctor or facility could be identified," she told us. "We can't and don't release information with that level of detail. We could share general data -- such as the annual number of complications reported to DSHS -- but only if it cannot lead to the identity of the patient, doctor or facility."
Williams adds that providers and the public are free to send their comments on the new requirements to the department; at the meeting, providers were told to contact Amy Harper at the regulatory licensing unit at 512-834-6730.The final draft of the updated requirements will be presented at the DSHS council meeting on June 14.