NEW YORK (AP) — Under fire from abortion-rights groups,
Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted yesterday that
doctor-patient privacy is not threatened by a government attempt to
subpoena medical records in a lawsuit over the Partial-Birth
Abortion Ban Act.

At stake are records documenting certain late-term abortions
performed by doctors who have joined in a legal challenge of the
disputed ban. President Bush signed the act into law last year.

Critics of the subpoenas accuse the U.S. Department of Justice
trying to intimidate doctors and patients involved in the contested
type of abortion.

At least six hospitals have been targeted by subpoenas,
including facilities in New York and Michigan which said they are
weighing how to respond. Last week, a federal judge in Chicago
blocked release of records from Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Another judge is considering a similar request from Hahnemann
University Hospital in Philadelphia.

The Justice Department also subpoenaed the records of University
of Michigan physician Timothy Johnson, who is a plaintiff in a
legal case against the federal ban.

Ashcroft said the Justice Department will accept the records in
edited form, after deleting or masking any information that would
identify a patient.

Abortion-rights supporters nonetheless depicted the subpoenas as
a dangerous intrusion into medical confidentiality.

“People’s medical records should not be the tools of
political operatives,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
“All Americans should have the right to visit their doctor
and receive sound medical attention without the fear of Big Brother
looking into those records.”

The federal ban seeks to outlaw a procedure referred to by
critics as partial-birth abortion and by medical organizations as
“intact dilatation and extraction” — or
D&X.

During D&X, a fetus’s legs and torso are pulled from
the uterus before its skull is punctured.

An estimated 2,200 to 5,000 such abortions are performed
annually in the United States, out of 1.3 million total
abortions.

The doctors targeted by the subpoenas have contended in lawsuits
that the ban is unconstitutional because it is overly broad and
lacks any exemption for a woman’s health.

Ashcroft, at a news conference in Washington, said the subpoenas
were needed to enable the government to rebut these claims.
“The Congress has enacted a law with the president’s
signature that outlaws this terrible practice,” Ashcroft
said. “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.”

In the Chicago case, the Justice Department sought medical
records from Northwestern Memorial Hospital relating to abortions
performed by Dr. John Hammond.

U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras quashed the subpoena, saying
Illinois’ medical privacy law superseded the
government’s need for the records.

Kocoras said patients’ privacy could be jeopardized even
if their names were deleted, because their prior medical history
would still be disclosed.

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