Government blocked from obtaining abortion records

Saturday, March 27, 2004

CHICAGO -- A federal appeals court Friday upheld a lower court decision that blocks the government from obtaining abortion records from a Chicago hospital. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while the administrative cost to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to produce the approximate 45 records would be modest, the hospital would pay a high cost in the long run by losing the trust of its patients.

"If Northwestern Memorial Hospital cannot shield its abortion patients' records from disclosure in judicial proceedings, moreover, the hospital will lose the confidence of its patients, and persons with sensitive medical conditions may be inclined to turn elsewhere for treatment," the court wrote.

The government is seeking the records for possible inclusion in court cases that challenge a federal ban on a type of late-term abortion that opponents call partial-birth abortion. Justice Department officials argue the records are central to claims by the challengers that the procedure is medically necessary.

The Justice Department said Friday it does not believe the records it is requesting invade patient privacy.

"The department has made every attempt to ensure that sensitive patient information remains private by having the hospital delete any and all information that would identify specific patients before they released these records," the department said in a statement.

At least six hospitals have been targeted by Justice Department subpoenas, including university-operated facilities in Michigan, New York and Philadelphia.

Judges in Michigan and New York have upheld the Justice Department subpoenas and ordered the records released. A federal judge in Illinois, however, blocked release of the Northwestern Memorial records, saying the state's medical privacy law superseded the government's need for the records.

The appeals court also said the government was not clear as to the value of the records it requested from Northwestern Memorial, and it said the Justice Department's motives for seeking them "remain thoroughly obscure."

Northwestern Memorial spokeswoman Kelly Sullivan said the appeals court agreed "that the significant intrusion into patient privacy outweighed the government's need for these records to prove their case. We are pleased with this result and the reassurance its provides to our patients."

Simultaneous trials on the challenges to the federal law are set to begin Monday in New York, San Francisco, and Lincoln, Neb. Experts expect the case to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

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