Kansas Supreme Court Protects Patient Privacy in Abortion Case

The Kansas State Supreme Court temporarily blocked a grand jury investigating an abortion provider from collecting more than 2,000 patient records, including patients who didn't end up having an abortion.  The provider, Dr. Tiller, and his attorneys objected to the subpoena of patient records as a violation of women's constitutional rights.  The Center for Reproductive Rights also filed a petition on behalf of patients to stop the subpoena's. The Court, at least for now, agreed the subpoenas raised "significant issues" about patients' privacy.  A final decision will be made by February 25th.

Kansas is one of six states that allow citizens to initiate a grand jury investigation through a petition drive.  Kansas for Life gathered over 7,800 signatures alleging Dr. Tiller violated the state's late-term abortion law and called for the grand jury to mine patient records over the last five years for any infractions. Kansas allows post-viable abortions only if two doctors certify that continuing the pregnancy could kill the woman or cause "substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

This is not the first time Dr. Tiller has been in the cross-hairs of opponents to choice, literally. His clinic was bombed in 1985, he was shot in the mid-1990's and he has been investigated at least five times since 2006.  Dr. Tiller's lawyers were able to draw on an earlier investigation in its objections to the subpoena of patient records. At the time, prosecutors were able to identify patients even though names had been removed from medical files by cross-referencing the medical records with guest lists from area hotels. 

Threats to patient privacy have been a chronic problem as abortion rights have been threatened, from Ohio litigation that sought to force Planned Parenthood to reveal all its patients under 18 who had received abortions the federal government seeking to the U.S. Justice Department seeking patient records in enforcing the federal ban on late-term abortions.  So far, courts have generally resisted these threats to patient privacy, but they highlight the dangers to privacy of anti-abortion laws that interfere with personal relationships between patients and their doctors.

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