Planned Parenthood battle

Monday, July 8, 2002

Let's not allow the sudden legal showdown between the Buena Vista County Sheriff's office and Planned Parenthood to get out of hand.

The issue of the moment is solving the tragic case of an infant's death, and making this into a battle of medical record privacy rights certainly won't help anyone but the ACLU types who live to get involved and stir up situations like this one.

So I'm going to suggest something outlandish. How about a compromise?

But first, here's the rub in a nutshell. A newborn baby's body is found in a trash chute at the local recycling plant. It's been discarded like trash.

The community is rightfully shocked. The sheriff's office is desperate to solve the case, but soon has nothing left to go on.

The sheriff wants to get a list of all women having a positive pregnancy test through the local Planned Parenthood office for a period of several months, in the longshot hope that tracing the list may lead to a woman who doesn't have a baby to show for her pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood argues that such a blanket approach would compromise the rights of perhaps up to 1,000 women in the area who depend on the confidentiality of their services.

The disagreement has landed in the lap of a local judge, and now is apparently being appealed to the state Supreme Court, with civil liberties experts from New York looking to get involved.

Why does it have to be that way?

There's really no bad guy here. The sheriff is trying to solve a case any way that he can, and that's what we pay him for. Planned Parenthood is trying to protect the women who depend on them, which is their job, and if they have no confidentiality to offer, they have nothing.

What bothers me is that in the midst of a high-profile civil liberties legal battle, we could lose sight of what we started out to do here.

Do right for a baby who never had a chance at life. Even if he lived just a day, he has a right to justice too.

There's a lot we still don't know about this case, and should not assume.

Unfortunately, after more than a month, local officers are still waiting for a final autopsy report from the state medical examiner.

We do not know if the child was born alive or stillborn. If the former is true, someone could face charges up to first degree murder depending on the circumstances of the death.

If the latter is true, there might be no charges or just a charge of improper disposal of remains.

We don't know the baby's race, where it was dumped in the county, or anything else we could use to further narrow down a search.

Of course, we have no reason to think the parent is a client of local Planned Parenthood, either. Like the never-solved case of Baby Doe found dead in a vacant Storm Lake trailer home several years before, I suspect that it is equally possible that this child came from some disturbed and desperate person or family just drifting through.

Yet if Planned Parenthood is our only chance for a solution, we should look at it. And the agency should see the need for that as well.

Depending on the circumstances, the mother of the baby could be in serious medical peril, and if not, is certainly in need of emotional and mental help.

If anyone knows the origin of this baby, or could find out, hiding the identity of the mother through silence might not be doing her such a favor.

Why do we have to have a court battle and subpoenaed records to move ahead?

Planned Parenthood CEO Jill June says that her agency "would like to help any way we could" in this investigation.

So, why don't they?

Planned Parenthood could come out like a hero if they assemble a team from their 17 clinics to set out making contacts with the women who tested positive in pregnancy testing from BV during the appropriate time period. While such a process is fallible enough, they could at least check to see that all came out well in the path that the women chose - all good service businesses do follow-up checks.

That wouldn't violate confidentiality concerns as it would if the sheriff tracked them.

And if Planned Parenthood turned up anything suspicious, or were unable to find a woman, that information could be passed to the sheriff with a clearer conscience for a welfare check.

Waging a battle in the courts is only going to delay an already slim chance of solving the case, and won't help either the image of law enforcement or of Planned Parenthood.

Why not try dropping the case and sitting down together?

Surely there is room for a compromise that could meet the sheriff's responsibilities and the agency's ideals at the same time.

That shouldn't be impossible.

This community is looking for answers, and we should all get on the same team until we have them. Shouldn't we?