County seeks names of women getting pregnancy tests, ACLU calls request 'dragnet'
A "dangerous precedent" would be set if the Storm Lake Planned Parenthood clinic is forced to turn over the records of hundreds of women to the county sheriff's office, according to the president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, and the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
The Buena Vista County Sheriff's Office subpoenaed the records to help solve the case of an infant found dead at the Harold Rowley Recycling Center over a month ago.
Last week, a judge ruled that the local Planned Parenthood office must turn over the records of women who had positive pregnancy tests between August 2001 and May 2002.
County Attorney Phil Havens said the court last week found the sheriff's office was "entitled to the records we were seeking."
Planned Parenthood officials refuse to give up the names, and plan to appeal the issue to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Jill June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, said her organization cannot comply with a blanket request to give up their clients' confidentiality.
"As much as we would like to help in any way we could in this investigation, what the sheriff has requested from us is quite impossible for us to comply with," June told the Pilot-Tribune yesterday.
She said the sheriff's office wants records of every woman that had a positive pregnancy test at the Storm Lake clinic between Aug. 15, 2001, and May 30, 2002. "It's quite impossible for us to comply with that request," June said. "When a person goes to see their health care provider there is a very great expectation that the records will remain private. That is the commitment we made to all our women."
Those records could involve as many as 1,000 women, she said.
If Planned Parenthood turned over those records, June said she does not think it would serve justice. "It may cause more problems," she said. "It could cause more fear and heartbreak and add more misery to an already bad situation.
"To my knowledge it is unprecedented in the country that every single medical record of women who tested positive for pregnancy in a given period of time are subpoenaed. It's unheard of," June said. "We think that if the medical records of women could be turned over in Storm Lake, than why not the records of everybody in the state. It sets a dangerous precedent. The privacy rights of men and women in the community and throughout the state must be upheld."
June said she would find it "perfectly acceptable" if the sheriff would request a specific woman's records. She said the sheriff could request a specific individual, and then Planned Parenthood officials could contact that person.
"The sheriff has not named one woman in particular, and instead requests records of every woman that may have tested positive for a pregnancy test," June said. "It's impossible for us to reveal the names of hundreds and hundreds of women like that."
Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa operates 17 clinics throughout the state, but a situation like this is not the norm for the organization.
"We very much want to help in any way we can to bring justice to this tragic situation, but we think two wrongs don't make a right," June said. "To violate the privacy and confidentiality of hundreds of women in the community can't be right."
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and its Iowa chapter are also concerned about the judge's decision.
"They intend to invade the privacy of every single person who tested positive for pregnancy," said Randall Wilson, legal director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. "It's beyond the scope of what I would consider proper."
Wilson said he considers Planned Parenthood a medical clinic that does testing under medical supervision.
"The important thing is that if the people who are using those clinics believe they are getting medical care, then they have a reasonable expectation of privacy," Wilson said.
Planned Parenthood's mission is to give women private, confidential services and this case could destroy what they are trying to provide, he said.
"This is a reproductive freedom case and it's not just about pregnancy services but also about the privacy rights that all of us have in our medical records," Wilson said.
The American Civil Liberties Union in New York is monitoring the case. Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, said the case is an extreme invasion of privacy that is unlikely to help with the investigation.
"We are always concerned when the state goes in with a dragnet seeking people's private medical records," she said.
Sending police officers to the homes of women to ask whether they had a miscarriage, an abortion or gave birth is "highly intrusive into people's private lives," she said.
If the context was right, there could be good reason to get medical records, she said, but "this certainly is not one, where they're just indiscriminately seeking records from 1,000 women."
The debate involves an infant's body discovered at the recycling center on a trash conveyor chute in May. The sheriff's office has exhausted all other leads in the case, according to Sheriff Chuck Eddy. The infant was born 24-48 hours before the body was found, and apparently discarded in the trash at an unknown location in Buena Vista County. Eddy said the case has proven to be very frustrating, and that despite a reward offered, no information on the possible identity of the child or its mother has been found.