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Texas Medical Board faces backlash over lack of clarity around abortion ban exception

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For years now, Texas has banned practically all abortions. Doctors who violate that law may face thousands of dollars in fines, the loss of medical licenses and even life in prison. There is a medical exception to the ban, and the Texas Medical Board had to clarify that exception. But as NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports, in a lively public meeting yesterday, the board was told repeatedly that their recent effort missed the mark.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: The public meeting was held virtually. Texas Medical Board president Dr. Sherif Zaafran, an anesthesiologist based in Houston, welcomed the commenters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERIF ZAAFRAN: I just want to assure you that you have the undivided attention of myself. There's a couple of other board members on here.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Over nearly 5 hours, lots of people commented, including Texas doctors, attorneys, activists and several patients who faced serious medical situations after the ban took effect. One of those patients was Elizabeth Weller, who first told her story to NPR in 2022. Her water broke too early for her pregnancy to survive, but she had to wait until she showed signs of infection before she was given an abortion. She concluded her remarks with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WELLER: I hope that you can all go to sleep at night and that you never have any blood on your hands for the women that are going to have to suffer through this. I hope that your rules are clear. I hope no one has to die because of this.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Many people commented that the rules failed to reassure physicians that they can provide an abortion without having to wait for a patient to get sicker and sicker. Zaafran pushed back. He said the Board did not mean to imply that a patient needs to be at,quote, "death's door" before a doctor can intervene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAFRAAN: That's certainly nothing that we intended.

STEVE BRESNEN: It's what was not said, Doctor.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's commenter Steve Bresnen, an attorney and lobbyist in Austin. He said the point of these rules is to say in writing that a patient doesn't need to be imminently in danger of harm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRESNEN: That's the point. And if you fail to do that, you're not achieving anything.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That very same point was echoed by Texas Right To Life's Miranda Willborg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRANDA WILLBORG: One important way we would like to see the proposed rule strengthened is, as several people have already mentioned, by clarifying the fact that imminence is not required.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For now, nothing changes with the Texas abortion ban. If the state's medical board decides to start over, the process could take months.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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