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Off the Records 

Justice Department stops quest for patients' abortion records

As the court cases involving the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act continue their almost inevitable journey to the U.S. Supreme Court, the confidential medical records of Mrs. Smith won't be going to Washington soon.


Last week, the federal Department of Justice's quest for the medical records of several hundred abortion patients officially ended when government lawyers withdrew a subpoena in New York, one of several the DOJ had issued to build its defense of the abortion ban.


After President George W. Bush signed the law last November -- surrounded by grinning, middle-aged congressmen -- it was almost immediately challenged by a number of health-care providers and pro-choice groups in three separate federal courts, in Lincoln, Neb.; San Francisco; and New York.


The local Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania was drawn into the case in February, when it was on of several Planned Parenthood chapters nationwide to receive DOJ subpoenas asking for the records of any patient who had had an abortion at 17 weeks' gestation or later, says PPWP President Kim Evert. DOJ lawyers had argued that they needed the records to prove this procedure was never medically necessary.

Though the feds promised to examine the records without patients' names, Evert says, PPWP planned to resist the subpoena.


Ironically, says Evert, PPWP doesn't perform the specific procedure that the federal act purports to ban -- a later-term procedure called dilation and extraction. Nor do they perform any other abortions after 18 weeks -- so very few of their patients' records would have fallen within the subpoena's reach. Evert suspects PPWP was targeted because a Magee-Womens Hospital physician and researcher, Mitch Creinin, testified as an expert witness in the San Francisco case. Plaintiffs have argued that the ban is unconstitutionally vague (and could then be interpreted to apply to other abortion methods) and that it doesn't provide exceptions for the mother's health, the same criticisms that the U.S. Supreme Court -- particularly Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- had made of a similar Nebraska law in 2000.


"Women who have to have terminations very late in pregnancy ... are almost exclusively women who have terrible pregnancies," Evert says. "People like to think it's that promiscuous teen-ager out there who rather than use birth control will have abortion after abortion, [not] people who had planned, wanted pregnancies who couldn't continue [them]." According to the Boston Globe, just 0.17 percent of abortions annually used the procedure before the ban.


On March 29, subpoenas specifically targeted to several Planned Parenthood chapters, including Pittsburgh, were ruled against in the San Francisco case. However, until last week, the DOJ was still after records from at least one New York hospital. Arguments in the San Francisco case concluded April 16. "We're waiting for a ruling," Evert says.


Although the subpoena brought the local Planned Parenthood office 15 minutes of fame, Evert says she doesn't plan to put it on display: "It doesn't really look that good. They faxed it."



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