Abortion rights group sues Ohio health agency for records

First Posted: 1/6/2015

COLUMBUS (AP) — An abortion rights group wants the Ohio Supreme Court to order the state’s health department to release public records detailing certain communication between the agency and an anti-abortion organization.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 24 by the NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation, claims the health department is improperly withholding phone records and emails between Ohio Right to Life and state health officials. The department last year declined a foundation request for the information, saying the request was too broad.

The court Tuesday referred the case to mediation, where the state and NARAL will try to resolve issues over the public records request.

The records dispute comes as abortion rights advocates continue to criticize a 2013 change in Ohio law that bans publicly funded hospitals from having patient-transfer agreements with abortion providers. Such agreements are required for clinics to be licensed, amounting to what abortion rights groups say is a de facto restriction on abortion.

Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said the group wants to know who has access to state officials’ decision-making process as they regulate women’s health.

“We are concerned about the dangerous influence of special interest groups, including Ohio Right to Life, on Department of Health officials and employees,” Copeland said in a statement Tuesday.

Health department spokeswoman Melanie Amato said the agency has no comment on pending litigation. She also declined to respond to Copeland’s statement, though she said the department was committed to upholding laws that protect the health and safety of Ohioans.

On Oct. 27, the foundation sought a year’s worth of landline and cellphone records from the Ohio Department of Health that reflected communication with specific Ohio Right to Life numbers. It also asked for two years of emails between any department employee and any individual with an email address ending in “ohiolife.org” relating to regulating abortion facilities.

The department declined the request in a Nov. 19 letter, saying in part that it was “overly broad” and lacked enough information to allow the agency to identify such records based on how they were organized.

Subodh Chandra, lead attorney in NARAL’s case, said the state should be able to comply with the foundation’s request regardless of how the phone and email records are kept.

Katherine Franklin, a spokeswoman for Ohio Right to Life, said disclosure of the records is up to the state and added that the group has nothing to hide.

“Part of Ohio Right to Life’s job is to make sure that the abortion industry does not have free reign, and that requires communication with ODH to make sure that our laws are being upheld,” Franklin said.

Franklin said the group does not always agree with the department’s decisions.

For instance, state health officials approved a variance to the transfer-agreement requirement, allowing Cincinnati’s last abortion clinic to remain open. Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region had sued over the state law but dropped its federal lawsuit in November after it was granted the variance.

Franklin said the outcome is “proof that we don’t really have the influence that NARAL thinks that we do.”

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