The Austin Chronicle

Health Department Wants Fetal Remains Buried, Cremated

By Mary Tuma, July 15, 2016, News

Just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled two major provisions of Texas abortion law House Bill 2 unconstitutional and an undue burden on women, state officials wasted no time proposing new obstacles for abortion providers. The state health department quietly suggested regulations that would require fetal remains from abortion or miscarriages to be cremated or buried regardless of gestation period – yes, you read that right.

Under the public radar, the Health and Human Services Commission, encouraged since January by anti-choice Gov. Greg Abbott, slipped the new rules into the Texas Register right before the July Fourth weekend. The change would stop providers from depositing the remains in sanitary sewers and medical waste landfills. (Most abortion providers currently use a third-party waste disposal service.) The changes are meant to "ensure Texas law maintains the highest standards of human dignity," says HHSC spokesperson Bryan Black.

The rules aren't required to be voted on by the Legislature, as state agencies are granted "defined rulemaking authority," but Abbott still hopes the rule becomes law during the 2017 session. There's a chance that could be met with a lawsuit: Georgia and Arkansas have passed similar laws, and a federal judge stepped in to block Indiana's fetal remains law in June.

Heather Busby, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas executive director, says the financial burden caused by the rule change will land on abortion clinics and their patients. (HHSC confirmed to the Chronicle that providers, not the state, will be responsible for paying for the cremation and burials. And if you're wondering where they plan to locate the burial site, HHSC has yet to figure that out.) "This is a new low for our state's leaders who are committed to making abortion inaccessible and shaming Texans who have abortions," said Busby. She considers the new regs a "frightening preview of the avalanche of anti-abortion legislation" that Texas lawmakers will propose next session.

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas – which includes Austin – says the new changes won't significantly impact its operations since its current policy is to contract with outside medical professionals to safely transport the fetal tissue for cremation. However, they remain "concerned about the health department's ongoing targeting of abortion providers" with additional rules. "We urge state officials to recognize the importance of medical science in creating public health policies and to respect the rights of women to make personal healthcare decisions as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last month," said Sarah Wheat, PPGT's chief external affairs officer.

The final changes are expected to take effect in September, but meanwhile, the public can comment on the rules before Aug. 1 by emailing [email protected] and specifying "comments on special waste from health care facilities."

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