Texas Medical Board’s New Abortion Ban Guidelines Fail to Clarify, Say Experts

The Texas Medical Board adopted new guidelines on Friday, aiming to provide clarity for medical professionals navigating the statewide abortion ban. However, reproductive rights advocates and legal experts argue that the new rules continue to leave doctors in a state of uncertainty.

The 2021 passage of Texas’ abortion ban, known as Senate Bill 8 or the Heartbeat Act, allows doctors to use their “reasonable medical judgment” to determine when an abortion is necessary. Despite this, the legal guidance has not been straightforward, as evidenced by the experiences of women like Kate Cox and Amanda Zurawski. Consequently, medical professionals have urged the state to publish a list of medical cases that justify abortions when the mother’s life is at risk.

Last month, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against Zurawski and 21 other plaintiffs who argued that the unclear parameters prevented them from receiving abortions, even in cases of fetal non-viability or severe health complications. The court stated that the Texas Medical Board needed to provide a list of such cases.

However, the newly approved guidelines notably lack this crucial list. The courts directed the board, and now the board deflects the responsibility back to the state lawmakers who passed S.B. 8. In its ruling, the Texas Supreme Court mentioned only one specific condition: premature water breaking as a permissible reason for performing an abortion.

This back-and-forth leaves medical professionals in a precarious position, with the stakes incredibly high. The new guidelines, while purporting to outline what a doctor should and shouldn’t do, also provide investigators with a framework for determining when an illegal abortion has occurred.

Doctors who perform abortions illegally can face fines, criminal charges, and civil prosecution. The new guidelines amended a draft discussed in March, which received heavy criticism for its “extremely burdensome documentation” requirements and for encouraging doctors to transfer patients to other facilities to avoid performing necessary abortions.

While the new guidelines aim to offer clarity, experts argue they fall short, leaving doctors uncertain and potentially jeopardizing patient care.

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