Civil Liberties

Privacy Test

Medical records and the police


In a small town, they say, everyone knows your business. A county judge in Iowa is pushing that tendency to an extreme by requisitioning medical information from a local women's health clinic.

The trouble in Storm Lake, a town of about 10,000 in Buena Vista County, started in late May when an abandoned newborn, possibly born prematurely, was left for dead in a local recycling center. With the police department at a loss for leads, County Attorney Phil Havens sought access to the names and addresses of every woman who took a pregnancy test at the town's Planned Parenthood clinic during a nine-month period. Once authorities had the names, they would check that each woman gave birth to a living infant; when this wasn't possible, they'd question the mothers.

After some legal back and forth between Planned Parenthood and the courts, Judge Frank Nelson ordered the clinic to hand over the information by August 17 or risk being charged with contempt. Jill June, the president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, refuses to compromise her patients' privacy. "What they've asked us to do is wrong," she says. "It violates the laws of Iowa, it violates the confidentiality and trust these women place in us. As much as we'd like to help with the investigation, we simply cannot cooperate."

Havens, the county attorney, who did not return calls for comment, argues that pregnancy test information is not protected by doctor-patient privilege laws because the test could be performed and interpreted by nonmedical personnel. But Judge Nelson took a slightly different tack, according to Randall Wilson, legal director of the local American Civil Liberties Union. In response to Planned Parenthood's assertion of doctor-patient privilege, "he cited a case suggesting that privilege only applies when you're in court."

Wilson is concerned about the precedent that would be set if the judge's order stands. "It would say that anytime officials want to go on a fishing expedition in medical records, on a hunch or just because under the law of percentages it might sometimes result in finding evidence, they can," he says. "It would basically wipe out any expectation of privacy in medical records."

June doesn't plan to allow that to happen. "It is our intention to pursue every legal avenue available to us, no matter how long it takes or what it costs," she says.