The American Civil Liberties Union is accusing the state of Texas of hiding public information about abortion and telling state employees to lie about it. The accusation comes as the Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on the biggest abortion case it has heard in decades, which is based on Texas’s abortion laws.
Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, told Vox that the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has been stonewalling journalists, researchers, and advocates for months in response to public records requests, responding with boilerplate language about how the data is still being processed and is not ready for release, and that officials can't predict when it will be available for publication.
There's a reason so many people are hounding the state for this data in particular. It’s abortion statistics from 2014 — the first full year that HB2, a major anti-abortion law, was in effect in Texas. HB2 imposed restrictions on abortion providers that were so difficult to comply with, about half of Texas abortion clinics closed after it was passed. That's why the Supreme Court is ruling on whether the law is an unconstitutional burden on a woman’s right to seek an abortion.
Normally the public records at issue here are available after about 15 months, Trigilio told Vox, which means they should have been ready in March of this year.
But the ACLU says it has learned that the records actually were ready in March. Furthermore, upper-level DSHS supervisors allegedly told state employees to lie and say the records weren't ready yet, and to refrain from sending email about the statistics to avoid creating a paper trail.
Trigilio told Vox she couldn't comment on how the ACLU got this information. She added that while she doesn’t know if it was intentional, the website with information on these statistics was down for some time, and only came back online last week.
The ACLU sent a letter to DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt last week calling out the alleged misdeeds (which, if true, would violate the state’s open records laws) and asking once again for the records to be released. The state has 10 days to comply with the request.
The DSHS released a statement last week saying that the data set is not available and that it would be released if it was complete, the El Paso Herald-Post reports.
There’s no telling what the records will say once they're released. But it could possibly strengthen the pro-choice case that HB2 had no medical benefit for women, and that it limited access to abortion so severely that it violated women’s constitutional rights. And if that's the case, it could potentially affect the outcome of the latest Supreme Court case — or could have, if the records had been released sooner.
Meanwhile, researchers have been trying to piece together what information they can about what happened to Texas women after HB2 passed. Studies have found that some women faced significant delays and increased costs, that some women couldn’t get the abortion they wanted, and that women had to drive an average of four times farther than normal to get to a clinic.