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UPDATE: Abortion Bill Passes

Testimony will end at midnight
Jordan Smith, 12:17am, Wed. Jul. 3, 2013
Rep. Laubenberg says her bill would improve "health and safety" of women seeking abortion

UPDATE:House BIll 2 passed out of the State Affairs Committee on an 8-3 vote with two absences. The quick vote came after Rep. Byron Cook, committee chair, shut down questions on the bill from lawmakers on the committee, including Rep. Sylvester Turner who was clearly frustrated.

Turner said he wanted to offer several amendments to the bill that he said was "on its face unconstitutional." Those amendments – to have the state pay for upgrades to clinics or to find a way for doctors to receive hospital admitting privileges – could be offered on the floor during debate, Cook said.

The hearing closed at midnight, as promised, with 1,015 people still waiting to testify. More than 3,000 people registered a position on the bill.

UPDATE: According to a resource witness from the Department of State Health Services in charge of licensing compliance for both abortion clinics and ambulatory surgical centers, abortion clinics are inspected far more often than are ASCs, meaning if HB 2 passes, abortion facilities, going forward, would face less oversight.

Indeed, DSHS Health Facility Licensing Manager Ellen Cooper said she is aware of no current issues with licensing requirements, serious complications, or deaths related to abortion clinics and providers that would have prompted the push to pass HB 2, the sweeping omnibus abortion regulations bill that would severely limit access to legal abortion in Texas.

Cooper's testimony marks the first time that a state expert witness has been asked to testify before any committee in connection with the abortion regs measure that is now in its third iteration since the beginning of the year. Previous hearings on the measures have included much emotional testimony on both sides of the debate, but have never included invited expert testimony from any of the major stakeholder groups – including DSHS, the Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association, or the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

That remains true today. Aside from Cooper, the State Affairs Committee did not invite testimony from any of the other groups. Nonetheless, so far witnesses from ACOG and THA, who signed up to testify, have been called. Indeed, according to Stacy Wilson from THA, the organization is against the section of the bill that would require abortion-performing doctors to have hospital admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of each clinic where the doctor performs abortion. Hospitals don't extend privileges to doctors based on procedures performed outside the hospital setting. Thus, a doctor who strictly performs abortion or other out-of-hospital procedures is unlikely to be admitted.

Moreover, Wilson said that should a clinic-performed procedure go wrong a patient would be taken to an emergency department to be seen and wouldn't have to be admitted via her outside doctor.

If that's the case, asked Rep. Turner, D-Houston, then isn't that provision one that "cannot be complied with," then, "in essence" isn't this a measure that would "outlaw abortion?"

"If no doctors can comply, then the answer is yes," Wilson said. Could the state require hospitals to grant privileges, Turner asked. That would be "an inappropriate way to guarantee the health and safety of women," she said.

But Wilson doesn't know for sure that no doctors either have, or would be able to obtain, privileges, pointed out Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring. That's true, Wilson said "but it is unlikely" that there are, or that there would be.

That's not the case, says Austin ob/gyn Mikeal Love, who says he has signed off on admitting privileges for abortion doctors. Having admitting privileges is part of the "standard of care," he said. To say otherwise is just "smoke and mirrors." There is "not a problem with this in the hospital," he said. Indeed, he said that increasing requirements for clinics and for doctors is important. And if clinics or doctors decline to meet those standards that is about "refusing to comply with the standard of care," he said. And if clinics end up closing up shop instead, he said, "that's their choice."

With a little more than just five hours to go in the hearing, the number of individuals wanting to testify has grown to more than 2,300, according to Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the committee chair.

EARLIER:More than 1,900 individuals have so far signed up to testify in front of the House State Affairs Committee during today's hearing on the omnibus abortion regulations bill, House BIll 2, filed in this second-called session by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker. With testimony slated to end at 12 midnight, it's safe to say only a few will actually get the chance to do so.

Indeed, the hearing was slated to begin at 3:30 pm but didn't actually get going until nearly 4 pm, and the panel has yet to hear from any member of the public. Instead, lawmakers are currently asking Laubenberg to explain aspects of her bill – and whether she'd be open to amending it.

HB 2 would outlaw abortion after 20 weeks, based on the premise that a fetus feels the "pain of abortion" at that point, says Laubenberg. The bill would also regulate abortion clinics like surgical centers, would require all abortion-performing doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of any clinic where they perform abortions, and would mandate the way in which doctors administer medical abortions.

Upgrading clinics to ASC standards requires costly improvements to physical plant structure and provides fear that all but 5 of the state's 42 abortion providing clinics would be shuttered if – or, more likely, when – this bill passes. Would Laubenberg be amenable to requiring the state to pay to ensure the standards can be met, at least in rural clinics, asked Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who is vice-chair of House Appropriations. No, she's not interested in any amendments, she said; her bill, she said, is focused only on the "health and safety" of women.

But what if the clinics closed as a result of the regs, Turner asked. "That's a hypothetical," Laubenberg replied, and she's not interested in that, she reiterated.

As Turner continued to press Laubenberg for answers the committee chair, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, stepped in to suggest that it wasn't "fair" to the folks who have signed up to testify and are waiting to do so, to have lawmakers take up so much time asking questions. (Apparently not a concern last time around, when Cook summarily ended a hearing on the same measures, saying that the testimony was getting repetitive.) Turner disagreed: "I have every right to ask a question," he said. "I know there are some interested in pushing this thing right on through, but I didn't set the limits here, I didn't cut it off at midnight," he continued. "I have every right to ask legitimate questions in good faith – especially when this is at the beginning of another special session." If it were at the end of the 30-day period, that might be one thing, he said, but this is the beginning and there could have been additional meetings scheduled.

Despite Cook's concern, lawmakers are continuing to ask questions of Laubenberg, including about why she hasn't allowed an exception to the 20-week ban for victims of rape (thankfully, Laubenberg did not repeat her assertion that a forensic rape kit exam would clean a woman out and keep her from getting pregnant), about the failure to include an exception for psychological well-being, and about why serious illness isn't considered for an exception.

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