Texas researchers' findings factor into abortion ruling

Thursday, June 30, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas -- The biggest court ruling affirming U.S. abortion rights in a generation scolded Texas lawmakers for a lack of facts and vindicated Republicans' wonky pest: a team of university researchers so prolific in their scrutiny of Texas women's-health laws, a state health official lost his job for collaborating with them.

This week's dismantling of Texas' restrictive abortion law ended a fight waged not just on ideological grounds but in spreadsheets tabulated by a University of Texas research team that analyzed the law's effect on everything from rural abortion access to Twitter traffic.

The restrictions required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forced clinics to meet hospital-like standards. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer alluded to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project's findings in his data-heavy majority opinion Monday.

Among some academics, the group's barrage of research published since the law passed in 2013 was unrivaled, pushing into the public arena suggestions more women may try ending their own pregnancies or were driving farther to get abortions. More than half the state's 41 abortion clinics have closed since the law passed.

Texas Republicans often said the researchers' math didn't check out.

When one unflattering study in February suggested funding cuts to Planned Parenthood restricted access to women's health care, the state's head of health research resigned under pressure from GOP lawmakers, who questioned his contributions to a "deeply flawed and highly political report."

The anti-abortion group National Right to Life also said the Supreme Court justices erred in taking the research at face value. The findings did "not necessarily demonstrate as much as they thought it did, would be the charitable way to put it," said Randall O'Bannon, the group's director of education and research.

No state funding is used in the Texas research, according to one of its founders. Instead, the money has come from the Susan T. Buffet Foundation, a financial supporter of abortion-rights groups, a source conservatives have raised when discrediting findings. Researchers said the foundation plays no role in their work.

"They have done a remarkable job -- in the face, I might add, of resistance -- to providing a full picture of information," said Wendy Davis, the former Democratic state senator who temporarily blocked the restrictions with an 11-hour filibuster in 2013.

Already, the high court's decision is reverberating elsewhere in the U.S., with Wisconsin and Mississippi losing their appeals to reinstate similar laws.

But none of the states that passed tough abortion laws had quite the amount of research Texas did, arming abortion-rights groups in legal fights and giving judges data to chew on, said Elizabeth Nash, who studies state abortion laws for the New York-based Guttmacher Institute.

"There's not the volume," said Nash, whose group supports abortion rights. "This was a unique opportunity. It was this sort of clash of policy and impact happening at once, and it was great to document it."

Even with the law off the books, the tension remains between a Republican legislative majority, that passed the laws on the grounds of protecting women's health, and researchers who said their conclusions show the opposite.

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union accused state health officials of "concealing" statewide abortion totals for 2014 in violation of open-records laws.

Those numbers are sought-after by researchers and abortion-rights groups because it was the first full year Texas' now-dismantled restrictions were in effect.

"If the data were final, we would release it," health department spokeswoman Carrie Williams said in an email statement.

Planned Parenthood and other clinic operators said it could take months or years for new facilities to open in the wake of the court's ruling.

Daniel Grossman helped kick-start the research project in 2011 after the state passed a law requiring women to have a sonogram before an abortion.

Grossman said getting data from the state since the project began "got more complicated and took more time," though he doesn't think the state is "particularly bad."

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