Another Hospital Refuses to Release Partial-Birth Abortion Records

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 18, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Another Hospital Refuses to Release Partial-Birth Abortion Records

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
February 18, 2004

Washington, DC ( — San Francisco General Hospital is refusing to turn over records related to partial-birth abortions performed under its roof — the latest in a string of hospitals that are refusing to cooperate with the Bush administration in its effort to defend the federal ban on partial-birth abortions.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice dated Tuesday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera refused to comply with a subpoena for the records, calling it "a gross violation of our patients’ privacy rights."

The National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood, and several abortion practitioners, filed lawsuits the same day President Bush signed the partial-birth abortion ban into law. The suits argue that the scope of the law is too broad and that it does not provide an exception for when such abortions are supposedly needed to protect women’s health.

Federal judges, responding to the lawsuits, issued restraining orders to prevent enforcement of the law.

U.S. District Judge Richard Conway Casey of New York was one of the judges temporarily blocking the law, but he has scheduled a hearing on March 29 to review the ban.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is seeking hospital records regarding the number and nature of the abortions, but not the patient’s information. The Department of Justice has issued subpoenas to seven major hospitals, and several are refusing to comply.

Ashcroft is not seeking to identify patients, but is looking to verify what pro-life groups say and some abortion advocates have admitted — that most partial-birth abortions occur on healthy women and healthy babies.

"We sought from the judge authority to get medical records to find out whether indeed the allegation by the plaintiffs — that it’s medically necessary — is really a fact," Ashcroft told reporters at a conference last week.

Judge Casey agrees, and has upheld the subpoena in New York.

"I will not let the doctors hide behind the shield of the hospital," said Casey in conference with parties involved in the lawsuit on February 5. "I will take all necessary guarantees to comply with the law and protect – and that is very important – to protect the privacy of the patients, but the information relevant to this case will be produced."

When the legal representatives argued that the documents would take too long to prepare, Judge Casey was not sympathetic.

"Too bad. They are plaintiffs. They will cooperate and get it done," Casey said of the abortion practitioners and hospitals that filed suit. "They didn’t have to be plaintiffs. They chose to be and now they are going to get it done."

U.S. Chief District Judge Charles Kocoras quashed the subpoena issued to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and Illinois’ medical privacy law as reasons why the information couldn’t be divulged.

Ashcroft has filed an appeal, as well as a motion to expedite to ensure the information is received in time for the March 29 hearing.

Meanwhile, San Francisco defends its decision to resist Ashcroft’s request.

"The act’s constitutionality will ultimately turn on the testimony of medical experts, not on the anecdotal experiences of this or that physician or this or that patient," Herrera wrote. "Wholesale disclosure of this information would result in the gross violation of our patients’ privacy rights, and the unjustifiable harassment of our physicians."

Ashcroft said his office is willing to let hospitals mask or remove information identifying the patients from the records.

That the California city is refusing to provide the records is not surprising. A federal judge last year cleared the way for San Francisco to join the lawsuit to overturn the ban on partial-birth abortions.

The Bush administration is seeking patient records from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, the University of Michigan medical center, Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp.; Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medical Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital — both of which are part of the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare System; and San Francisco General Hospital.