The Ohio Department of Health is illegally refusing to turn over records of phone calls and emails between agency employees and representatives of Ohio Right to Life, claims a lawsuit filed on behalf of the NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation.
The lawsuit was filed in late December with the Ohio Supreme Court and asks the justices to order the health department to turn over any records that reflect phone calls to two telephone numbers associated with Ohio Right to Life, as well as any emails sent to people whose email addresses end with “ohiolife.org” concerning the state’s regulation of abortion facilities.
Kellie Copeland, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation’s executive director, said the organization made the public records request in October after noticing that the anti-choice advocacy organization repeatedly appeared to have access to public documents or agency opinions ahead of their public release.
“The reason we first made the request is because we noticed a pattern where over the years the Ohio Department of Health will issue a ruling with regard to a clinic, or release a report, and Ohio Right to Life will have their press release on the topic on their website with a link to the Ohio Department of Health document before it’s released to the public,” Copeland said in an interview with Rewire.
Copeland claims that when her organization would make a similar request to the department, the group was stonewalled by state officials.
“How much input is Ohio Right to Life having on these decisions being made? Our point isn’t that outside groups shouldn’t be able to communicate with agencies,” Copeland said. “That’s not the issue. Here we noticed this pattern of the Ohio Right to Life organization having information before the rest of the public does, and it has been in stark contrast to our inability to get information from the same agency.”
So far the department has refused to comply with the request, arguing it is “overly broad” and that the agency cannot conduct the kind of searches necessary to locate the records.
The Ohio political blog Plunderbund reported that the Ohio Department of Health released public records by request to Ohio Right to Life on the same day they were requested. These included records relating to disciplinary action taken against the Northeast Ohio Women’s Center and the Bedford Heights Health Center/Planned Parenthood. Ohio Right to Life received these documents before the clinics were notified of the then-pending disciplinary actions, according to Plunderbund.
Meanwhile, it has been more than two months since NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation’s public records request and the state Department of Health has yet to comply.
“It is clear in every way that the Ohio Department of Health treats abortion providers differently from other medical providers. Anything that touches the regulation and licensing of abortion providers is treated differently from any other health-care provider,” Copeland said. “And that’s inappropriate.”
The Ohio Supreme Court has recommended the lawsuit go to mediation first, which Copeland sees as both an opportunity for resolution as well as an avenue for further delays by the state Department of Health. “Our hope is that we will get the information,” said Copeland.
Subdoh Chandra, lead counsel for the NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation, said in a statement that the department has never suggested that the requested communications do not exist, nor that the records would qualify for exception to the Public Records Act.
“By refusing to produce emails and phone records that would reveal Ohio Right to Life’s influence over the health department—all the while taking steps to constrict women’s right to reproductive health care, the health department causes Ohioans to ask, ‘What is the Health Department trying to hide?’” Chandra said.