Friday, September 09, 2005

Deja vu in Kansas

In an effort to prosecute two clinics that provide abortions, Kansas attorney general Phil Kline has subpoenaed the medical records of 90 women and girls. He says these records will help build a case against clinics (and presumably individual physicians) who have broken the state's laws about sexual-abuse reporting and late-term abortion. Seattle Times reports here.

Regardless of one's stance on abortion, the instrumental subpoena of women's (supposedly confidential) medical records -- especially in a time of increased privacy protection and regulation around health care information in general -- ought to raise concerns about privacy and civil rights.

(The very similar efforts of former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, which were intended to bring down Planned Parenthood clinics, were unsuccessful.)


Toby Schonfeld said...

This case reminds me of an analagous situation we had in nearby Storm Lake, Iowa in 2002. Officials at a recycling facility found a newborn, dismembered baby boy apparently discarded in the trash. As a way of holding someone accountable, prosecutors subpoenaed the records of any woman with a positive pregnancy test in the previous 10 month period from all local hospitals, clinics, and physician offices. Only Planned Parenthood refused to comply with the order and challenged the validity of the subpoena. The case was headed to the Iowa Supreme Court, but before it got there prosecutors dropped the case on account of "a lack of time and resources to fight a case that could drag on for years".

This case raises both legal and ethical questions. The medical examiner could not determine a cause of death of the baby; it is possible the boy was stillborn. Given that, is it the case that someone was criminally liable for the death of the child, or merely for the inappropriate disposal of a body?

Even if someone is responsible for the death of the child, why assume it is the child's mother? Furthermore, it is not clear that obtaining confidential pregnancy records will enable prosecutors to achieve their goals. What were they going to do: go door-to-door for every woman and ask to see either their child or proof of abortion?

This was a poorly considered attempt to react to a tragic situation. We would all be better served by putting our resources toward prevention: establishing social systems that support women and children and their decisions.

You can read a bit about this case at

Toby Schonfeld said...

Here's another way to access this article: