Physicians oppose pre-abortion sonogram bill in Texas Senate hearing
[Editor's note: This story was updated at 6 p.m. Eastern time to reflect a correction requested by Texas Medical Association spokesperson Pam Udall. Udall clarified that TMA does not oppose the bill, though it does have concerns about the way the bill is written. "We have physicians on both sides of this sensitive issue," Udall said in an email.]
During a Senate committee’s first hearing on pre-abortion sonogram legislation this morning, physicians testified that the bill invades the doctor-patient relationship, wrongly dictates what medical tests physicians have to perform and would not reduce the number of abortions, according to available data.
“There is not any statistically significant evidence that the rate of abortion changed as a result of viewing sonograms,” said Michele Gilbert, an obstetrician/gynecologist.
Before witnesses testified before the Senate State Affairs Committee, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) substituted a revised version of his Senate Bill 16 that clarifies that women will not be forced to view sonograms or listen to the fetal heartbeat, making it similar to legislation that passed the committee in 2009. As written, the revised SB 16 would change the law to make it mandatory for abortion providers to perform sonograms at least two hours before abortion procedures.
That’s currently the standard of care for most abortions (and the policy of Planned Parenthood), but physicians said lawmakers should abstain from legislating medical decisions. They also said the bill language is vague and potentially confusing, and criticizes it for not containing exceptions in cases such as incest, rape or fetal anomalies.
Patrick said he submitted the committee substitute because of legal challenges to an Oklahoma law that contains mandatory viewing requirements. Patrick said he did not base his bill on any other state’s law, but came up with the idea for the legislation as a result of working with crisis pregnancy resource centers, which provide free sonograms and counseling to women with the goal of having them choose not to have abortions.
According to the New York Times, a Canadian study showed that 73 percent of women at two abortion clinics wanted to see ultrasound images if given the chance; 84 percent of those said viewing the image did not make the experience more difficult; and none reversed her decision to have an abortion. The Times article said anecdotal evidence in Alabama (which enacted an ultrasound law in 2002) generally corroborates that study’s findings.
Comparing the bill to changing the DWI limit for blood-alcohol content from 0.1 to 0.08 percent, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) said, “If it makes a difference in one life, it’s a worthy law in my eyes.”
Committee chair state Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) accused one of the physicians of being motivated by politics rather than science in her opposition to the bill. OB/GYN Margaret Thompson said she had both political and scientific oppositions.
Meanwhile, a Texas Medical Association spokesperson expressed concerns some doctors have about the legislation, according to the Austin American-Statesman: “”It’s really an intrusion into the patient-physician relationship,” said Pam Udall, spokeswoman for the Texas Medical Association. “We don’t think it’s in the best interest of any Texas patient that any medical care be predetermined by a scripted, cookbook-type approach.”"
Dr. Scott Spear, the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Texas Capital Region, said it is standard of care for physicians to give patients the option to view sonogram images if they choose. When doctors fail to meet the standard of care, patients (and others) can file complaints with the Texas Medical Board to spark an investigation.
Dr. Matthew Romberg, an OB/GYN with a private practice in Round Rock, said, among other problems, the bill does not have exceptions for pregnancies that have no chance to be viable. He said the bill not only dictates what medical tests he needs to perform, but how he is supposed to perform the tests.
He said the medical purpose for performing sonograms and other tests before abortions is to help assess the specific risks for the patient, including the position of the uterus and the gestational age of the pregnancy — not so that the doctor can describe what the fetus looks or sounds like.
“What does not matter is the number of present extremities. What doesn’t matter is listening to the heartbeat, yet the specifics of the bill are mandating that I do that,” Romberg said.
State Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville), who is a family physician, said he thinks the bill — designated an official legislative emergency by Gov. Rick Perry — would set sound medical practice into law.
“Critics say the purpose of the bill is to lay a guilt trip on women, to coerce or bully them out of getting abortions,” he said. “I look at it as a safety issue.”
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who is a pharmacist, questioned whether the bill would inadvertently enable abortion providers to bill the state’s Medicaid program for the cost of sonograms. The program prohibits payments for abortions and pre-abortion procedures, but if the purpose of the sonogram, under the legislation, is to provide a woman with ‘informed consent,’ rather than to assist with the abortion itself, then would that make pre-abortion sonograms eligible for billing under Medicaid? she asked.