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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

Ashcroft Gunning for Peek at Private Medical Records

March 09, 2004|Patt Morrison

Wrap your mind around this one.

It's the law now: If you buy a gun on, say, Monday morning, then by the time you've had breakfast on Tuesday, the record of that sale will be in the shredder -- gone.

Don't thank me -- thank John Ashcroft, your attorney general.

The man is an absolute guard dog when it comes to sticking up for the privacy of gun owners. He wouldn't even let his FBI agents use the agency's own database to find out whether any of the 1,200 people it detained after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had bought any guns lately. They might be arrested, they might be jailed until the crack of doom without seeing a lawyer or a loved one -- but we'll never know whether they bought a gun.

Now Ashcroft, the man who won't let the sun go down on gun-buying records, has sent out process servers to go knocking on the doors of six of the nation's Planned Parenthood offices -- one of them in Los Angeles and another in San Diego -- with subpoenas demanding those most private of records: medical data on thousands of patients, because he's being sued over a new law making so-called partial birth abortion a federal crime.

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Women go to Planned Parenthood clinics for lots of reasons: for birth control, for prenatal checkups, for treating sexually transmitted diseases -- that's more than 90% of their clients right there -- and for abortions.

When I went to Planned Parenthood's offices Monday, I found that these subpoenas are, in gun terms, more shotgun than rifle. They not only demand records of late-term abortions -- which Planned Parenthood doesn't perform anyway -- but the language is so vague and broad that it could sweep up files on virtually any abortion of a pregnancy of more than 14 weeks.

The Justice Department swears it would black out any patient identifiers. And while this administration is certainly heavy-handed with the Magic Marker -- one example, the 28 pages about the administration's dealings with the Saudis and others, blacked out of Sept. 11 documents -- something tells me that there might be a slip here and there when it comes to patient histories.

What's not blacked out would be the doctors' names, and that's the real catch that this legal fishing expedition is after: finding which doctors perform abortions, and scaring women away from clinics.

At Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, patients have already called asking, "Should I use a false name?" In San Diego, patients wondered whether they should take their records home.

Diane Delille is San Diego's director of clinic training, and she took one call herself. The woman was scheduling an abortion and said, "I'm hearing things on the news [about confidentiality]; I'm reading things in the paper. I'm really terrified about coming to Planned Parenthood."

None of the Planned Parenthood offices even considered handing over any records. Last week, a San Francisco federal judge backed them up, saying flatly that the subpoenas violate patients' privacy, full stop.

The way San Diego's Planned Parenthood director Mark Salo sees it, "There's a variety of opinion about abortion, but not a variety of opinion about whether medical records should be private. This should be alarming to Americans who take the right to privacy seriously, whatever their views on abortion."

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I'm looking at it right here, a White House press release dated April 14, 2001.

President George W. Bush had nothing but good to say about a new medical privacy law, and "the right of every American to have confidence that his or her personal medical records will remain private.... Improving our healthcare system while protecting the confidentiality of patient records will continue to be an important goal of my administration."

I didn't see an asterisk for exceptions, but I guess there was one, because last month the government argued in this lawsuit that "federal common law does not recognize a physician-patient privilege," and, in another matter, "individuals no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential."

What's next on the attorney general's to-do -- or undo -- list: lawyer-client privilege?

I'd love to find out more, but Ashcroft is in the hospital with gallstone pancreatitis -- and his office won't tell us much more than that.

Maybe we ought to subpoena his medical records to make sure that's what's really wrong with him. Remember, the White House at first tried to cover up Ike's heart attack? And that big faker FDR didn't want to let on that he had polio. I quote Ronald Reagan quoting the Russians: "Trust, but verify."

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With Ashcroft in the hospital, I wondered whether people were praying for him -- and against him, the way the Rev. Pat Robertson organized "a massive prayer offensive" last year to retire three Supreme Court justices -- the two women and the pro-abortion rights justice appointed by that notoriously liberal president, Gerald Ford.

On the Internet, I found a lot of jokes about Ashcroft's "gall," prayers for his health, and this:

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