By Deborah Prussel
Thursday, August 2, 2001
The privacy rights of abortion patients and the free-speech rights of anti-abortion activists are being put to the test by an Illinois woman who is suing for the removal of her photo and medical records from anti-abortion Web sites.
(WOMENSENEWS)--An Illinois woman whose photograph was displayed on anti-abortion Web sites is suing anti-abortion activists and groups, demanding the removal of her photo and medical records. She argues that she was publicly humiliated and that her privacy was violated.
The woman, identified only as Jane Doe in her complaint, suffered a cervical tear during a second trimester abortion procedure June 1 and was taken across the street to a Catholic hospital for treatment in Granite City, in southwest Illinois. She was photographed by anti-abortion protesters as she left the clinic in the steel-mill town; her hospital records were obtained without her permission, she alleged in her complaint filed in an Illinois state court.
The case tests competing rights: the abortion patient's privacy and the activities of anti-abortion activists demonstrating for years outside a high-profile abortion clinic.
The clinic serves patients from 10 states, many of which have restrictive abortions laws, such as requiring patients to go through waiting periods and teens to notify their parents. Illinois does not have those provisions.
Doe's suit is one of the first legal challenges to the new anti-abortion tactics of photographing and taking video footage of women seeking abortions and then posting the pictures and video footage on Web sites.
And it comes on the heels of a controversial March federal appeals court decision in California that upheld the legality of posting photographs of abortion doctors on Neal Horsley's Nuremberg Files Web site, saying the First Amendment protections of free speech outweighed concerns that the postings incited violence. An upstate New York abortion doctor, Bernard A. Slepian, whose photo was posted on the site, was assassinated in 1998 while his family watched.
Targeting patients, however, is a new tactic, and some anti-abortion protesters say those seeking abortions have been coddled for too long and now must be exposed as baby killers. The public shame, they say, will prevent abortions and dissuade other women from seeking abortion, for fear of exposure.
However, an attorney for Doe has a dramatically different view.
"A picture of a woman going for an abortion or for cancer treatment is an invasion of privacy," says Doe's attorney Mark Levy. "This case is about medical privacy, not abortion.
"They have terrorized and humiliated Jane Doe and made her fearful for her life. They've really done terrible damage to their cause."
The suit, filed July 2 by Jane Doe and the Hope Clinic for Women Ltd., seeks $50,000 in damages for each of eight counts. It names the Catholic hospital, St. Elizabeth Medical Center, where Doe was treated for a cervical tear, as well as anti-abortion protesters and organizations. Defendants include Stephen Wetzel, director of Missionaries to the Unborn, and Angela and Daniel Michael of Small Victories, as well as Verna Cepicky, Jerry Lieneke, the Rev. John Gamblin and Tim Berands, co-host of a morning talk show on a Christian broadcasting station in St. Louis, Mo.
Without the defendants present, state court judge George J. Moran issued a temporary restraining order on July 10 and ordered the removal of Jane Doe's medical records, medical information and photograph from anti-abortion Web sites, including those of Missionaries to the Unborn and Operation Save America. The latter only posted an article. Judge Moran set a hearing to be held Aug. 22 on whether he would issue court orders that would extend the prohibition against the posting.
Wetzel of Missionaries to the Unborn was quoted last Thursday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying, "The court documents probably aren't worth the paper they are printed on."
According to the complaint, Jane Doe entered the Hope Clinic for Women on June 1 for an abortion procedure. Noting heavy bleeding and suspecting a cervical tear, Dr. Yogendra Shah sought to admit Jane Doe to a hospital for additional treatment. St. Elizabeth Medical Center, where Shah is on staff, is directly across the street from the clinic.
Trying to protect her from protesters outside, clinic staff placed Jane Doe in a wheel chair and attempted to quietly get her across the street by using a van parked in the clinic's garage. But protester Daniel Michael saw her and took her picture, as others yelled: "They botched one! They're going to kill the mother."
Shah has now been added to the list of abortion providers on Neal Horsley's anti-abortion Nuremberg Files Web site, in its Christian Gallery section, "Baby Butchers on Trial."
In addition, "Another Hopeless Clinic Chop Job," an article by Angela Michael, identifying herself as a member of anti-abortion group Small Victories in Highland, Ill., appeared on several Web sites, including Missionaries to the Unborn.
The grainy picture of Jane Doe and her medical records from St. Elizabeth, minus her name, accompanied the article that provided her age, her residence and mentioned her husband and the age of her child.
Wetzel, an Omaha, Neb., resident, claims no responsibility for obtaining and posting the records and picture. As of this date, the information is still available on the Web sites despite the temporary restraining order.
The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly grant the right to privacy; the matter is left to the individual states. The Supreme Court, however, has inferred a Constitutional right to privacy and cited that in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling which established a woman's right to choose to terminate her pregnancy.
The Illinois Constitution grants the right to privacy, and a patient's right to medical privacy is established by statute.
In 27 years of operation, Hope Clinic has performed more than 100,000 abortions; it also offers birth control. The clinic performs abortions up to 24 weeks. Eighty-two percent of the procedures performed are first trimester. Eighteen percent, like Jane Doe's, are second trimester.
The defendants are not known to have retained counsel, Levy said.
Deborah Prussel is a free-lance writer in Long Beach, Calif.
Hope Clinic for Women:
Kaiser Daily Health Report on plan to post video and photos of abortion patients:
Missionaries to the Unborn:
Operation Save America: