Texas Wants a Detailed Report on All Abortions and Will Discipline Doctors Who Don't Comply

Last legislative session, Representative Bill Zedler, a Republican from Arlington, wanted to hear about abortions in Texas. All of them. In great detail.

Zedler filed a piece of legislation that would have required a woman having an abortion to fill out and submit to the state a detailed questionnaire about her educational background, the type of contraception she was using when the child was conceived, why she was having the abortion and who was paying for it, among other things. Doctors would also have had to submit a "complication reporting form" following an abortion, although the word "complication" was never actually defined in any way.

That bill died in committee in March of last year. But Zedler didn't go down so easily.

He still very much wanted to hear about those abortions. So he went over to the State Health and Human Services Commission and asked if they wouldn't mind implementing the reporting requirements anyway. As Andrea Grimes pointed out over on RH Reality Check, Zedler's staff was already soliciting the HHSC about implementing his new abortion requirements a week before they failed to become a law.

Now Zedler has gotten his wish, at least in part. On December 31, the Department of State Health Services will officially require that new "abortion reports" be submitted to the state. There will also be an additional form required when an abortion is performed during the third trimester.

The new reporting requirements, readable in the online Texas Register, are less invasive than the ones Zedler originally proposed. The woman can't be identified by name, and neither can the abortion facility, except with its consent. There aren't any questions about the woman's preferred method of birth control or the age of the man who impregnated her. Instead, the report merely asks for her year of birth, race, marital status, state and county of residence, the date of her last menstrual period and how many abortions and live births she's had before.

The doctor also has to affirm in writing that the patient has been shown a sonogram of the fetus, listened to a heartbeat (if one is present), and shown the Woman's Right to Know booklet, which still contains thoroughly debunked information linking abortion to breast cancer. There are also questions about the "method of pregnancy verification" and how the "fetal tissue and remains" were disposed of.

All of this looks remarkably similar, identical, in fact, to the "draft language" that a group of healthcare providers were shown back in April. At that time, DSHS rep Carrie Williams told us the language was "a starting-off point" and "entirely open for discussion at this point." (Williams was also a little shy about admitting that the reporting requirements were Zedler's idea, attributing them instead to "a general discussion among state leadership.")

There are also new reporting requirements for "complications" that occur following an abortion, although the word "complication" is never actually defined. Doctors have to submit a report within 30 days,detailing the type of abortion "that caused or may have caused the complication," as the new language puts it, plus the name of the facility where the abortion was performed, the facility where the complication was diagnosed and treated, a description of the complications, the number of weeks gestation when the abortion was performed, what type of anesthesia was used, as well as the patient's previous live births and abortions.

Texas law already requires that a woman look at a sonogram, listen to a heartbeat and read a medically inaccurate, pink-tinted little pamphlet. But it's not clear why the state is suddenly demanding an extra layer of proof that the doctor has done these things, or what type of "complications" they're supposed to be reporting.

However unclear some aspects of the new rules are, the consequences are severe. Doctors who don't comply can be subjected to "denial, suspension, probation or revocation" or their medical license.

You can read all these new rules for yourself in the Texas Register, a publication put out by the Texas Secretary of State that shows changes to the rules governing state agencies. As you look them over, take a moment to marvel at everything a humble state legislator can accomplish, if he just asks nicely enough.

(Correction, Dec. 18: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the reporting requirements for third trimester abortions have changed. In fact, those rules have been in place since 2009; they're readable here. After December 31, the new rules on "complication" reporting will be added to that section, as you can see here.)

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan