ACLU to State Health Department: Stop Hiding Abortion Data

ACLU of Texas sharply accused the state health department of shielding valuable statistics on the state's abortion rates from the public


Against the backdrop of a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision on Texas' abortion restrictive House Bill 2, the ACLU of Texas sharply accused the state health department of shielding valuable statistics on the state's abortion rates from the public.

In a letter dated June 15 addressed to Commissioner John Hellerstedt, the statewide civil liberties group charges the Depart­ment of State Health Services with intentionally concealing abortion data from 2014 – an especially important timetable, as it marks the first full year portions of the multipart HB 2 went into effect and thus, an ideally reliable way to track the law's impact. The ACLU says the public has been able to obtain the data, which highlights where and how many abortions are performed, around the end of March for the past two decades.

"[HB 2] was passed under the header of 'We're going to protect women's health more than ever' so I think it would be extremely helpful for us all to see what data the state collected on how well women's health was protected the first year after it was passed," ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke tells the Chronicle. "It makes us a little suspicious about why they are not revealing this."

DSHS stands in "direct violation of the Texas Public Information Act," the ACLU contends, for refusing to fill dozens of open records requests (filed by reporters, academics, and research groups) for the stats and for misleading the public about whether the statistical tables were complete. The ACLU also alleges DSHS refrained from sending emails about the data in order to "avoid creating a paper trail." According to the ACLU, the coordinated efforts to obscure the information from the public reached all the way up the department chain to the general counsel for the chief operating officer who reports directly to the commissioner.

"We know that there has been instructions from the highest-level employees not to release data. They've said things like 'Tell anyone asking that it's not available.' They are basically telling their employees to lie," says Burke, calling the purposeful obfuscation a "flagrant abuse of authority." (Burke says that because agency whistle-blowers are involved, the advocacy group is proceeding delicately and is not revealing its sources at this time.)

While DSHS could craft a legal argument for concealing the stats, they haven't gone that route, instead saying the data isn't ready for release. Not mincing words, the ACLU writes: "Rather than responding honestly and claiming a legal basis for withholding the 2014 statistical tables, it appears that your agency has chosen to hide the truth."

In response to the ACLU allegations, DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams says if the data were all there, they'd release it. "The detailed data for 2014 isn't final yet for Texas," says Williams. "We released the provisional total as soon as it was ready several months ago, but the underlying details are being reviewed for accuracy. For the last several years, Texas abortion data was typically finalized and published between March and June." Provisional (meaning it will change and may contain duplicates and/or other data errors, according to DSHS) abortion data for 2014 released to the Chronicle shows there have been 54,191 reported induced terminations of pregnancy in Texas, a 15% drop from 2013.

After sending their letter, which also serves as a formal Public Information Act request, the ACLU has yet to hear back from DSHS as of press time. They warn that if the department should fail to comply within a reasonable time (that's 10 business days under the Texas Act) they will begin to "explore all available legal options."

For more, check out our War on Women's Health page.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

abortion rights, House Bill 2, HB 2, ACLU of Texas, Terri Burke, John Hellerstedt, Depart­ment of State Health Services, Carrie Williams

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