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Texas medical panel issues new guidelines for doctors but no specific exceptions for abortion ban

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas medical panel on Friday approved guidance for doctors working under one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans but refused to list specific exceptions to the law, which doctors have complained is dangerously unclear.

The decision by the Texas Medical Board came less than a month after the state Supreme Court upheld the law that had been challenged by doctors and a group of women who argued it stopped them from getting medical care even when their pregnancies became dangerous.

The board’s refusal to adopt specific exemptions to the Texas abortion ban was not a surprise. The same panel in March rebuffed calls to list specific exemptions, and the head of the board said doing so would have been beyond state law and the board’s authority. All 16 members of the board, which includes only one obstetrician and gynecologist, were appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the state’s abortion ban into law in 2021.

The board, however, modified some of the most controversial reporting requirements for doctors, allowing them seven days to submit documentation about why they provided an emergency or medically necessary abortion. Doctors had previously complained they were required to do that before intervening, even during medical emergencies.

The new guidance also eliminated a provision that said doctors should document whether they tried to transfer a patient to avoid performing an abortion. And it echoed the state Supreme Court’s ruling that a doctor does not have to wait until there is a medical emergency to perform an abortion to save the life or protect the health of the mother.

Texas law prohibits abortions except when a pregnant patient has a life-threatening condition. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison, a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

The medical board can take away the license of a doctor found to have performed an illegal abortion, and its findings could be used by prosecutors to pursue criminal charges or civil penalties.

“What is black and white are the exceptions. What is gray is the medical judgment,” said Dr. Sherif Zaafran, president of the board.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ended abortion rights in June 2022, vaguely worded bans in some Republican-controlled states have caused confusion over how exceptions should be applied.

LuAnn Morgan, a non-physician member of the Texas board, said she did not want to see women turned away from treatment because a physician was afraid of the consequences.

“I just want to make sure that they’re covered by these rules and not turned away because of a physician or ER are afraid of a persecution,” Morgan said.

Associated Press