February 27, 2004

Justice Dept. Requests Hospital Records

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In early February, the Justice Department announced a request for medical records from university hospitals across the country, including New York Presbyterian Hospital, in connection to a lawsuit over “partial-birth” abortions. New York Presbyterian Hospital, the University hospital for both Cornell and Columbia University, refused to hand the records over because of privacy laws and doctor-patient confidentiality agreements. A lawsuit opposing the subpoenas was filed on behalf of New York Presbyterian Hospital on Feb. 13.

The two doctors under scrutiny were part of a group of medical professionals and abortion-rights activists who signed a petition protesting the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which was signed into law by President Bush in early November. Within days of the signing, the National Abortion Federation filed lawsuits to obtain a restraining order against enforcement of the ban. Vickie Saporta ’74, president and CEO of the NAF, said “doctors shouldn’t fear going to jail for doing procedures that could save a woman’s life.”

Although it is doctors who are being questioned, the hospital became involved because it is the custodian of the patients’ medical records, explained New York Presbyterian Hospital spokesperson Myrna Manners. Manners is the vice president of Public Affairs and Media for the hospital and Vice Provost of Public Affairs for Weill Cornell Medical College.

“The bill is clearly unconstitutional,” Saporta said, adding that the ban has a very broad definition of the abortion procedures made illegal.

“This is a deceptive and extreme and dangerous ban. I think that women’s lives and health will be in jeopardy,” she explained. Saporta claimed that the law fails to take into account a woman’s health when abortions are performed.

The law defines a “partial-birth” abortion, a term not recognized by critics in the medical community, as an instance when a doctor “deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus.”

Unclear

Neither Manners nor Saporta found this to be a clearly detailed explanation. They were also unsure of exactly what kinds of records the Justice Department is seeking.

“It is unclear in some cases what the term [‘partial-birth’ abortion] means,” Manners said.

Ramifications

Saporta said it would outlaw the abortion of all fetuses older than 12 weeks. “They want to grant personhood to a fetus,” she said, adding that she believes the Justice Department would like to eventually overturn the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade.

In addition to objections about the language of the ban, Manners said, “the subpoena called for medical records that are protected under HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a set of federal statutes instituted in 1996 regarding privacy of medical records] and also are protected under the even more stringent New York state privacy laws.”

Manners added that the hospital fears a breach of the privacy laws in giving over some of the requested information.

“We value our patients’ privacy very highly,” she said.

The University of Michigan has refused to hand over records, as have Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia.

A judge overturned Northwestern’s subpoena last week; the hospital will not be required to give its records to the Justice Department.

The case regarding Weill Cornell Medical Center will be heard on March 29 by U.S. District Judge Richard Casey, who has blocked the law from going into effect until after he hears the case.

According to a court transcript of a meeting with attorneys, Casey said the doctors “didn’t have to be plaintiffs. They chose to be.” He also made it clear that he will “not let the doctors hide behind the shield of the hospital.”

Saporta, however, is still optimistic about the outcome. “I don’t think there’s any chance that the ban will be upheld in this stage; New York is one of the states where you don’t see a lot of anti-choice legislation passing through the legislature,” she said.

Archived article by Melissa Korn

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