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Privacy at Stake in New Antiabortion Strategy

Debate: A woman injured during a procedure in Illinois finds her medical data posted on a Web site.

July 06, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — The photo is blurred, hard to make out: a woman with dark hair slumped in a wheelchair, a white sheet draped over bare legs. The accompanying medical records, however, make clear what the photo depicts. The woman had suffered a cervical tear during an abortion. Bleeding heavily, pale and in pain, she was being transferred to a hospital operating room.

She would recover physically. But she has claimed severe emotional distress because both the photo and her medical records have shown up on antiabortion Web sites--next to pictures of Adolf Hitler and dismembered limbs--as a cautionary tale about the alleged dangers of ending pregnancies.

This is a new tactic in the abortion wars. And it's one that frightens abortion rights activists and privacy advocates alike.

"People are always asking me, what use is someone's medical information, as opposed to their financial information? Well, here's a perfect example of how people can use someone's medical information to further their political agenda," said Joy Pritts, senior counsel for the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University. "This is probably the wave of the future."

One prominent antiabortion Web site features photos of women walking into abortion clinics, under the heading, "True images of the people who go where tiny babies are slaughtered." Visitors can click on a list of 17 states, including California, to monitor the comings and goings at local clinics. The site promises streaming video soon.

"It's their latest technique," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Their goal is to win by intimidation."

A spokeswoman for one of the most powerful antiabortion groups, the National Right to Life Committee, said the activists who post such pictures are working on their own, so she declined to comment about whether her organization supports such a strategy.

The woman with the cervical tear seems to be the first abortion patient to have her medical records posted online, according to activists on both sides of the debate.

Her name was excised from the two-page account of her hospitalization. But the records are linked to the grainy photo and an article that gives her age as 30 and describes her family, her medical history and her small hometown in southern Illinois. The article explains how her pregnancy was terminated and her cervix torn last month at the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Ill. It also details how antiabortion activists followed her wheelchair across the street to the hospital while screaming, "They botched one!"

This week, the woman sued the hospital, alleging her medical records were released without her authorization, a violation of Illinois law. She also sued the activists who posted her private data on the Internet, accusing them of publicly humiliating her.

Administrators at St. Elizabeth Medical Center declined to comment on the case, saying only that they are careful to protect confidentiality. The activists, however, proudly talked about their tactics.

"I'm kind of a private person myself, so maybe if it were me, I wouldn't want my medical records to be [online]. But if it helps to save one woman, if it helps to save one baby, then, to me, it's worth it," said Daniel Michael, an Illinois activist who pickets the Hope Clinic several times a week with his wife and some of their 11 children.

Michael took the photo that appears online. His wife, Angela, wrote the article after interviewing the patient as she recuperated in her hospital room. (They had no trouble tracking her down, Michael said, because "sources" told them her room number.)

To the Michaels, the case was as newsworthy as any car crash covered by mainstream media.

The Hope Clinic is proud of its safety record: In the last eight years, only about 25 patients out of 59,000 have had complications requiring hospital care. Yet Michael sees each of those 25 cases as another argument against abortion. "If someone is injured by an abortion . . . every newspaper in America should have it on the front page," he said.

Still, he said, the Internet publicity blitz was crafted to preserve the patient's privacy. The photo is fuzzy enough and the article vague enough that "it could be [any one of] a million girls," he said.

Steven Wetzel, a Nebraska-based activist who obtained the medical report, agreed. He would not disclose his source for the hospital records. ("They just got here," he said, chuckling.) But he said his aim in posting them is to discredit the physician who performed the abortion--and who also happens to serve as an obstetrician at St. Elizabeth. In his view, St. Elizabeth, as a Catholic hospital, should not keep a doctor who performs abortions on its staff.

"This is not about exposing the girl," Wetzel said. "It's about exposing the abortionist."

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