NEW YORK- Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights argued before the Kansas Supreme Court to stop a citizen-petitioned grand jury from obtaining the medical records of approximately 2,000 women who sought services from Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. The Center argued that the subpoenas are a profound intrusion on the patients’ privacy, and their ability to make reproductive health care decisions without unwarranted or unconstitutional interference.
“The records contain deeply personal medical and psychological information, including the patients’ decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy,” said Bonnie Scott Jones, deputy director of the Domestic Legal Program at the Center, said today. “Exposing the intimate and often painful details of these women’s lives to strangers is not only a gross intrusion of privacy, it is cruel.”
Anti-choice organizations, Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue, revived use of an 1887 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 abortions later in pregnancy unless a woman’s life or health is in danger. The jurors first convened three months ago, and have since 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.
“It’s shocking that what I believed to be a deeply private and personal medical matter might be dragged into the public for a few public citizens off the street and the District Attorney’s office to review,” said Paula Poe*, a patient of Dr. Tiller. “When the papers start getting shuffled through so many hands, there is no way to protect my information.”
In addition, many of these women were harassed by protesters while visiting Dr. Tiller’s clinic, and now fear being recognized by the public if their records are disclosed. Operation Rescue recently posted on its website photographs of women entering Dr. Tiller’s clinic-proving the extreme lengths it will go to humiliate women seeking abortions and to shut the facility down. As Dr. Tiller is one of the few physicians in the country who provides abortions later in pregnancy, the outcome of this case could have repercussions for thousands of women around the country.
“Seizing patients’ private records is beyond the pale, even for anti-choice extremists,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center. “If the court ultimately decides in this grand jury’s favor, it will not only be setting a very alarming legal precedent, but arming opponents of a woman’s right to choose with a dangerous weapon in their crusade.”
Last year in Ohio, there was an attempt to subpoena teenagers’ records in a case against an abortion clinic for allegedly violating the state’s parental notification law. In Indiana in 2006, the state attorney general attempted to get medical records of Planned Parenthood patients to see if the facility was adhering to child-abuse reporting requirements. And during the 2004 trials against the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act (upheld by the Supreme Court this past April), the Bush Administration sought to subpoena records.
*Name has been changed to protect identity