By Rekha Basu
Monday, July 8, 2002
The president of Iowa Planned Parenthood may be jailed for refusing to provide a county attorney--investigating the gruesome death of an abandoned newborn--with the names of 100s of clinic patients whose tests indicated that they were pregnant.
Des Moines, IOWA (WOMENSENEWS)--As the rest of the nation celebrated Independence Day, Jill June, the president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, braced for an arrest for protecting her clients against what she called a "woman's worst nightmare."
A county judge, Frank Nelson, in nearby Buena Vista has ordered the Planned Parenthood clinic in the northwest
Iowa community of Storm Lake to turn over to criminal investigators the names, addresses and birth dates of
every clinic patient whose pregnancy test was positive during a 9-month period, between August 15 of 2001 and May 30.
If June turns the records over, each clinic patient who received positive pregnancy test result will face scrutiny. If authorities can not determine by other means that the patient became a mother of a living infant, the patient could face an interview with law enforcement officers inquiring on the outcome of the pregnancy.
Calling it an unwarranted invasion of privacy and of confidential medical information, June and her organization have been refusing to comply. Planned Parenthood had petitioned Judge Nelson to quash a subpoena seeking the medical records of all the women who came in for services during that period.
County Attorney Phil Havens last week threatened to ask the judge to cite the clinic for criminal contempt of court. The judge's order required Sue Thayer, director of the Storm Lake clinic, to provide the documents. However, as president, June is the official legal custodian of records and was the one anticipating arrest. If she is found guilty of criminal contempt, June faces up to six months in jail, a $500 fine or both.
As of Friday, Havens had not pursued the contempt of court order, but said he is not backing off from his pursuit of the test results. Instead he'll first ask Judge Nelson for a time frame on enforcing his ruling.
Havens says he understands the conflicting interests. However, he says, if the community isn't willing to support him on this, it means that the community is willing "to accept a few dead babies."
The Buena Vista County sheriff, Chuck Eddy, and the county attorney insist that knowing who was pregnant, and eliminating from suspicion those women who can show a baby, is their only hope of finding out who gave birth to a newborn whose body was left May 30 at a recycling center in Storm Lake. The baby's body ended up going through a garbage shredder and officials have been unable to determine who the mother was--a first step in tracking down and possibly prosecuting someone for the infant's death. Medical tests have yet to reveal whether the baby was born alive, but officials say it was born 24 to 48 hours before being found.
The community has reacted with understandable horror at the apparent murder. At the same time, those involved in protecting women's medical privacy are outraged, insisting that such a broad request for medical records is a fishing expedition--that is, a search for evidence so intrusive and unfocused that it could be unconstitutional.
In this case, law enforcement is seeking the pregnancy test results although the authorities have not identified a suspect and therefore have no reason to believe that the mother was a clinic patient. Authorities don't even know that the mother lived in the area.
June argues she cannot surrender the records without sacrificing the privacy rights of hundreds of clients, possibly discouraging pregnant women from seeking health care.
"It is explicitly stated to women when they come in for services that information from pregnancy test results is only disclosed when they file their written authorization," said June. Planned Parenthood officials estimate the Storm Lake clinic served 1,000 women during the nine months, but have not said how many took tests to determine if they were pregnant. Calling the order a "witch hunt," June has pledged to defy it while appealing to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Investigators have said they also subpoenaed pregnancy-test information from at least three other area medical facilities that provide reproductive health care. They may already have complied.
Federal laws protect the privacy of medical records and Iowa statutes guarantee doctor-patient confidentiality. In fact, Iowa privacy laws are so stringent that an investigator cannot obtain information about which videos or library books a suspect in a particular case checked out of a library or rental store without the suspect's permission or without convincing a judge of a probable link to a crime.
In the past, when Planned Parenthood has had information about its clients subpoenaed, attorneys for the organization have asked judges to prevent the inquiry unless patients agreed to the disclosure.
"In this case, there is no named individual," observed June. "It's every woman who tested positive for pregnancy." Moreover, June openly doubts whether the mother of the dead newborn even took a pregnancy test. "Quite probably," June added, "this woman never came to Planned Parenthood or any health care provider."
Contacted for comment, attorney Priscilla Smith at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, agrees. "Somebody who went to a physician and was obtaining prenatal care is the least likely to have this sort of outcome," she said. In the typical cases, mothers who abandoned newborns have denied to themselves that they were pregnant, sought no care and delivered the infant without assistance.
The county attorney argues that pregnancy-test information is not protected by doctor-patient privilege because it isn't "medical" information and the test could be performed and interpreted by non-medical personnel. Moreover, Havens said it wasn't he who needed to make the case that the tests were beyond the reach of law enforcement. It was up to Planned Parenthood to prove otherwise.
"You have to establish a physician-patient privilege. It's not my job to do that," he said Friday. He added that, with all other means of investigating the baby's death exhausted, "I would have been derelict in my duty if I just said let it go."
If he succeeds in obtaining the test results, the information will be handled sensitively, he insisted. "We would do everything we could to eliminate" these patients, he said, by "first by seeing if there's some way to determine if they had a baby."
As for those who could not produce an infant, he said: "Eventually those people would be investigated . . . We would interview that person. Certainly that's the whole point."
Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register.
Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa: