Legal showdown heats up over pregnancy records
When the phone rang this week at the Storm Lake office of Planned Parenthood, it was as likely to be CNN or a morning talk show calling as it is a prospective client.
Meanwhile, an official of Planned Parenthood said she is ready to go to jail to protect medical records in Storm Lake.
"We will exhaust all legal remedies available to us and we will not surrender these records," said Jill June, director of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa.
Investigators are seeking records that would help identify the mother of a baby found dead at the regional recycling center near Storm Lake on May 30.
In a ruling last week, Buena Vista County District Judge Frank B. Nelson ordered Planned Parenthood to turn over the names, addresses and birth dates of women with positive pregnancy tests at the Storm Lake clinic between August 15, 2001, and May 30, 2002.
County Attorney Phil Havens issued subpoenas to five area hospitals and clinics. He would not identify them, but county hospital officials said they turned over only birth information that already was public.
Investigators had wanted the records by Friday, but Planned Parenthood did not respond. Havens said that if June flouted the subpoena, he likely would prosecute for contempt of court.
"We have a shredded baby and there's no way to investigate the case unless we have some way of determining who the mother is," Havens said.
June said federal law forbids health care providers to release medical records without a patient's approval.
"To our knowledge, we don't believe this has ever happened before in the country," June said. "It's so preposterous, no one has ever tried it before."
She said the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Storm Lake has been overwhelmed by telephone calls from women who have used the clinic.
"Most of them are patients calling in and saying 'Oh my God, please don't turn over my medical records' and asking us to do whatever we possibly can to protect those medical records," June said. "My convictions have been pretty strong, but now I feel even stronger hearing that these patients are calling in. They're very scared and feel threatened. That just fills me with resolve."
June said she would not be the first Planned Parenthood official to go to jail. Margaret Sanger, the organization's founder, was sent to prison for running a birth control clinic in New York.
Lawyers for Planned Parenthood were working on an appeal of the Buena Vista County ruling, but it had not yet been filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, June said.
"What if they went to a local drug store and pulled all the sales receipts of everybody that bought a home pregnancy test?" June asked.
"You're just sending out that dragnet to try to sweep up anything and everyone in sight. It's anti-American."
Robert Rigg, associate professor of law at Drake University in Des Moines, said the information being sought by investigators was "the most confidential information you would have."
"I don't think people realize that the investigators are going to go out and interview all of these women," Rigg said. "Can you imagine somebody out of the wild blue knocking on your door, asking you about some of the most intimate decisions that you have ever made in your entire life and writing a report about it?" he said.
Rigg said courts have ruled that anti-abortion protesters simply writing down the license numbers of cars parked at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country were in violation of privacy laws.
"This is just another way of doing that but getting in to the medical files," he said.
June said she wants to cooperate, but will not compromise what she believes is right.
"These are good people in Storm Lake in the prosecutor's office and the sheriff's office and as much as we'd like to help them, we are not going to violate our patients' rights, violate the state laws as we understand them and behave unethically," she said.
June said Havens gave her until Friday morning to turn over the records or face contempt charges.
She said Planned Parenthood attorneys told her only a judge can hold her in contempt, therefore Friday's deadline passed, but legal maneuvers continued.