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Court Rejects U.S. Bid to Subpoena Records of Planned Parenthood

A federal judge says turning over the information would violate patients' privacy. Two of the six clinics are in L.A. and San Diego.

March 06, 2004|Joy Buchanan | Times Staff Writer

An attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice to subpoena the medical records of hundreds of women who have used Planned Parenthood clinics was denied Friday by a federal judge in San Francisco.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled that turning over such records would violate the privacy of patients who have been treated at the clinics. Two of the six clinics issued subpoenas were in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit Planned Parenthood has brought against the federal government to overturn the ban on partial-birth abortions signed into law by President Bush last November.

Attorneys for the group have argued the ban violates a woman's right to have an abortion under the Constitution because the procedure is sometimes medically necessary.

Such abortions typically occur in the second trimester and involve removing the fetus from the womb before destroying it.

The Department of Justice sought the records to determine whether, in fact, partial-birth abortions are needed for health reasons. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said last month that all personal information would be taken off the records before they would be examined by government attorneys.

But, Roger Evans, the chief attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. told the judge that the clinics have in recent days been flooded with phone calls from patients worried their medical records would be shipped to government lawyers.

"The judge understood there would be a ripple effect of fear even if a person's identifying information was redacted," Evans said in an interview Friday. "It's exceedingly difficult to pick out every single piece of identifying information. She understood all of that."

Monica Goodling, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the judge's ruling was disappointing.

"The department took every care to protect patient privacy by not requesting any records containing patients' names, addresses or other information that would have identified specific patients," Goodling said.

"We are reviewing the ruling in light of our obligation to vigorously defend the ban on partial-birth abortions."

The Justice Department can still file motions to enforce the subpoenas in the individual districts of each of the Planned Parenthood clinics, Evans said. But it is unclear if those motions would be successful, in light of the fact that Hamilton is the lead judge on the continuing lawsuit against the government, which Planned Parenthood originally filed in San Francisco.

The other four clinics are in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Three lawsuits have been filed attempting to overturn the partial-birth abortion ban. Besides the Planned Parenthood action, there are two other ongoing cases -- one brought by doctors in Nebraska, the other by doctors in New York state.

Hamilton is the second federal judge to rule that it is improper for the Justice Department to seek private medical records.

Earlier this year, a judge in Chicago halted an attempt by the Justice Department to subpoena medical records from 40 patients who had abortions at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Northwestern is involved because one of the New York doctors who is suing the government works there.


Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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