Doctors Fear 'Gag Rule' Under New State Program For Women's Health

Texas officials are putting together a new health program for low-income women to get reproductive services, one that will exclude Planned Parenthood. But as the politically-charged program takes shape, doctor's groups say the new rules interfere with their first amendment rights.

Recently, legal battles have consumed the Women’s Health Program. It provides birth control and disease screening to poor women in Texas.

Texas wanted to exclude all Planned Parenthood clinics, even ones that don’t provide abortions, and in response the federal government withdrew most of the funding.

Now Texas is putting together state money for the program, and rewriting the rules.

Dr. Celia Neavel works at the People’s Community Clinic in Austin.

Her clinic currently takes part in the program, but she wonders about the new rules.

“So there were two things that the Texas Women’s Health Program wants to ensure. One is that you’re not an abortion provider – which my and most clinics are not – but the other thing that got tricky is that you cannot ‘promote’ abortion. That’s the part that’s been very concerning, is what does the word ‘promote’ mean.”

Neavel and other doctors wonder if they’ll get in trouble for even discussing abortion with a patient, or if a colleague in a different part of the clinic discusses it or hands out a brochure about it.

Dr. Michael Speer is president of the Texas Medical Association.

He says what the state proposes amounts to a gag rule on a doctor’s right to free speech.

“It’s the ability of the patient to discuss anything that patient wishes to discuss with her physician. And we don’t think it’s appropriate for a governmental entity to tell us what we can and cannot discuss with our patients.”

Stephanie Goodman of the state Health and Human Services Commission says the doctors’ fears are overblown.

“We’re not trying to get in the middle of that doctor-patient relationship, and we understand they have a professional standard they have to uphold. So I think that’s probably an area where we need to do some work on the wording of the rules to make it much clearer about what we were really trying to achieve there.”

Last fiscal year, Planned Parenthood served about 50,000 Texas women under the program – and many now question if the state will be able to sign up enough new doctors to fill the gap.

Even Dr. Neavel wonders if her clinic will continue to take part.

“And honestly, I signed initially to be part of this, because again we do not promote abortion but if it means we can’t discuss it when it comes up, if it means we can’t give a handout for services (about) where’s a legal place to go get further care within the community, then we’ll have to decide whether we want to accept this program. But that really breaks my heart because I like the patients and the kind of service they’re able to get through the program.”

Tomorrow in Austin, there will be a public hearing, and then the state expects to finalize the new rules in the next few weeks.

 

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...