Peeping John

April 05, 2004

OUR BODIES are our temples, it is said. But the current administration apparently sees no separation between these churches and the state.

To better argue that the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is legal in simultaneous court challenges in three states, Attorney General John Ashcroft subpoenaed the late- and early-term abortion records of patients at hospitals and clinics across the country. Apparently this administration doesn't believe that its own medical privacy act, which President Bush lauded in 2001 as ensuring "the right of every American to have confidence that his or her personal medical records will remain private," extends to the saddest, most sensitive of such records.

Abortion is legal in the United States. These women and their doctors have not broken a law, and do not deserve to be harassed. Others contemplating such a painful decision ought not to fear that the most private decision will be made public in the future.

The new act, which makes certain kinds of abortion illegal, is being challenged mainly because it does not offer exemptions for situations when such a procedure might be medically necessary.

The feds argue that an exemption isn't needed because the procedure is never medically necessary.

That is a debatable point, and should be debated in the normal manner: doctors and medical experts testifying based on their experiences and data, as well as lawyers and judges sifting through past congressional hearings, court cases and the like. Not by lawyers burrowing through deeply personal records that it was assumed never would be public.

Even with her name and other identifying information blacked out, a patient wouldn't have the privacy she deserves. It would be like uploading nude photos of her without her consent on a Web page, an example used by the appeals court in Chicago. Internet searchers might use even redacted court records to identify a specific woman, connecting her time away from work - or the recovery drugs she bought with a credit card - with dates on records.

"Individuals no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their [patient] histories will remain completely confidential," government lawyers declared in their appeal for the records. That's news to many Americans, and they shouldn't accept it.

Everyone deserves to have final say over who has access to his or her most intimate details, be they as harrowing as abortion or as ordinary as Mr. Ashcroft's recent pain-in-the-gut problem. Americans do not deserve to be invaded by their own government.

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