In a highly unusual, but largely symbolic, move, eight members of the Texas Department of State Health Services Council (DSHS) Thursday morning declined to vote on proposed rules that would put an omnibus anti-abortion bill signed into law this summer into action.
Council member Rev. William Lovell, an evangelical minister from Dallas, moved to vote on the proposed rules, but the rest of his colleagues on the Rick Perry-appointed council declined to second his motion. Regardless, the rules will now move on to state health services commissioner Kyle Janek for approval before being published for public comment.
“The council has an advisory role and makes recommendations to the HHSC [Health and Human Services Commission] executive commissioner,” said Texas Health and Human Services Commission Spokesperson Stephanie Goodman, “but it doesn’t have any rule-making authority.”
The Department of State Health Services has been tasked with implementing HB 2, which requires that abortion clinics meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers and that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform abortion procedures. The law also bans abortion after 20 weeks in Texas.
The bill is expected to close all but six abortion clinics in Texas, as the expense of expanding from a traditional abortion clinic to an ambulatory surgical center—which involves widening hallways and installing air ventilation systems and large operating rooms, despite the fact that most abortion procedures require no incisions—is far too high for the average provider.
The council heard public testimony on the new proposed rules this morning and yesterday afternoon, with members of Texas’ “orange army” of reproductive rights supporters asking the council to do whatever it could to mitigate the impact of HB 2, which is expected to drastically reduce access to safe, legal abortion care in Texas.
Opponents of HB 2 asked the council to consider allowing existing abortion clinics to be exempted from meeting the ambulatory surgical center requirements, or to waive hallway width or operating room size requirements for existing providers.
But even if council members were sympathetic to those changes—and their refusal to vote to approve the new rules indicate that they may well be sympathetic, if not outright opposed to HB 2 generally—there’s not much within the department’s power to do about it, said Carrie Williams, a DSHS spokesperson.
“Regarding grandfathering and waivers, that power would have needed to have been written into HB 2,” said Williams. “It wasn’t so, we don’t have that capability.” As for the physical plant requirements, said Williams, “The law didn’t afford us exception capability, so that’s not something we have any leeway on either.”
Still, abortion rights advocates are viewing the lack of a vote as a victory, despite the fact that the rules will take effect with or without the council’s approval.
“All 8 Governor Perry-appointed DSHS council members refused to vote to second the rules on HB 2,” said the the official blog of Whole Woman’s Health, a full-spectrum reproductive health provider with five locations in Texas. “Though this does not stop the bill’s implementation, this symbolic move is unprecedented among the council with all 8 of them showing their disapproval of HB 2.”