Kansas Supreme Court Limits Grand Jury's Power in Abortion Patients' Medical Records Case

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NEW YORK -- Today, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the grand jury investigating abortion provider Dr. George Tiller cannot embark on a fishing expedition into his patients' medical records. The court ordered the lower court, the Eighteenth Judicial District court in Wichita, to undertake a number of steps before allowing any information from the patients' records to be disclosed. The Center for Reproductive Rights is representing patients of Dr. Tiller who asked the Supreme Court to stop the grand jury from obtaining the medical records of approximately 2000 patients.

"We are extremely pleased that the court protected the patients' privacy rights and ordered the lower court to properly supervise the citizen-petitioned grand jury," said Bonnie Scott Jones, lead attorney on the case and senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "The legal system should not be hijacked by abortion opponents as a tool of harassment against an abortion provider."

The Supreme Court ordered the lower court to first determine whether the grand jury needs access to the patients' records and whether that need justifies the instrusion on the patients' privacy and the burdens imposed upon Dr. Tiller. If and when the scope of the subpoenas is justified, then the court must take further steps to ensure the patients' privacy is protected. These include:

* Women's Health Care Services must be permitted to remove all patient-identifying information from the records that could potentially identify the patients to others.
* Once the redacted records are received by the court, they must be reviewed by an independent attorney and independent physician who will be instructed to remove all information from the records that is not relevant to the grand jury's investigation.

"The Kansas Supreme Court has recognized how fundamental the constitutional right to privacy really is. What we say to our doctors, the medical care they give us, and what they have on file about us are not for public consumption," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "It is still the law in this country that the right to obtain abortion without the government imposing an undue burden is a matter of constitutionally protected privacy."

Anti-choice organizations, Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue, revived use of an 1887 Kansas law that allows citizens to launch a grand jury investigation. (Five other states, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, Nebraska and Nevada, have a similar law.) The groups allege that Dr. Tiller violated a Kansas law prohibiting post-viability abortions unless a woman's life or health is in danger. The jurors first convened four months ago, and subpoenaed the records of every patient who visited Dr. Tiller's clinic from July 1, 2003 on who were twenty-two weeks pregnant or more.