The Austin Chronicle

Pro-Choice Activists Deliver Petitions Against Fetal Burial Rule

By Mary Tuma, October 27, 2016, 2:00pm, Newsdesk

Reproductive health advocates marched two full boxes of petition signatures against a proposed rule that would force Texas women to bury or cremate their fetal tissue after an abortion or miscarriage to the front desk of The Department of State Health Services on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

The 5,687 signatures, collected by Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, demand the health department scrap the rule, seen by the groups as another unnecessary and unjustified state-backed regulation meant to shame women.

“This rule is especially egregious and isn’t legally defensible,” said Austin resident Geraldine Mongold, during a rally before the petition delivery. “At what point do we stop and say this doesn’t make sense?”

Austin activist and retired teacher Peggy Morton said she made the time to come out to protest because she's tired of the state's "lack of respect" for women's bodily autonomy. "I'm really fed up," said Morton. "It's outrageous that politicians want to interfere with the human rights of women in Texas."

The state quietly slipped the rules into the Texas Register days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of anti-choice House Bill 2 – the timing leads some reproductive health observers to believe the state had seen the writing on the wall with SCOTUS and began planning to push the regulation even before the decision was announced. The change would stop hospitals and clinics from depositing the remains in sanitary sewers and medical waste landfills, as they do now in accordance with state standards. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission defends the rule as a way to "ensure Texas law maintains the highest standards of human dignity,” but have yet to provide any evidence of its medical necessity.

During an August hearing at DSHS, anti-choice speakers praised the rule as “compassionate” while reproductive health activists slammed the regulations as another political maneuver to increase barriers to health access, including cost burden on patients and providers. After hours of public testimony, the health department re-submitted the rule for public comment – Texans have until Monday, Oct. 31 to voice their opinion by e-mailing [email protected] and specifying "comments on special waste from health care facilities."

The skepticism isn't just coming from pro-choice advocates. The non-partisan Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Medical Association heavily questioned the rules in a joint letter to the health department. Among the questions related to cost, disposal, and patient privacy, the medical groups asked whether or not women who experience miscarriages away from a clinic setting would have to carry the fetal tissue to a doctor’s office.

In separate letters to the state, the ACLU of Texas and the Center for Reproductive Rights have both warned the rule flouts Constitutional limits, signaling a potential lawsuit on the horizon.

“The Department of State Health Services did not take seriously, and refuses to respond to, the thousands of public comments and hours of testimony opposing these rules that they received this summer,” said Blake Rocap of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “Just like the state abortion restrictions that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in June, there is no public health benefit to requiring stricter disposal methods of one type of tissue over another.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams says the department will offer more information about next steps after it has had a chance to review the additional comments from the public. The rule still needs to be approved by the Health and Human Services Commission executive commissioner and posted in the Texas Register; it would then take effect 20 days later.

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