An Iowa county's investigation into the gruesome death of an infant is pushing Planned Parenthood into an precarious legal corner, as prosecutors seek to force the family planning group to turn over treatment records for hundreds of women.
The matter started on May 30, when the body of a newborn boy was found at a recycling center in Buena Vista County. The infant, less than two days old, had been put through a waste-shredding device. Following the discovery, county investigators compiled a list of agencies, clinics and medical offices that might have been visited by the child's mother. As part of the inquiry, county authorities say, investigators requested and were granted subpoenas to review the patient records of several groups, including a Planned Parenthood clinic in the nearby town of Storm Lake.
"The subpoena was issued because we had to determine who the mother was of this baby or we would have no investigation whatsoever," says Phil Havens of the Buena Vista County Attorney's office.
Planned Parenthood officials say they have worked with local authorities on criminal investigations in the past. But they say the case in Buena Vista County is different.
"It's always a named individual and then we work with the individual's attorney and get their permission to turn over the records," says Kendall Dillon, director of communications of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa. "We're more than happy to help in that way. But this is a totally different case. There are no suspects. There's no reason to even believe that this person is from Storm Lake. We feel it's just too broad of a net."
When Planned Parenthood officials balked at the county's request, prosecutors took the group to court. On June 17, a county judge ordered the Storm Lake clinic to provide investigators with the identities of all women who were given pregnancy tests at the center and were found to be pregnant between August 15, 2001 and May 30.
Iowa state law provides broad protections for patient records. Still, county prosecutors successfully argued that, in this case, the investigative need outweighs the statutory confidentiality protections. Phil Havens of the Buena Vista County Attorney's office says that investigators did not make that decision lightly. Still, while acknowledging the importance of protecting patients' rights, Havens argues that, given the lack of leads in the case, investigators must have access to the medical records.
What has Planned Parenthood officials most concerned, however, is the nature of the county's legal argument. County attorneys convinced Judge Frank B. Nelson that state privacy provisions do not apply to patients who seek services from family planning clinics, because the staff members at the Storm Lake clinic are not considered medical professionals under state law.
"There is no record to support a finding that personnel at the [Planned Parenthood] facility in Storm Lake are: A Practicing Attorney, counselor, physician, surgeon, physician assistant, advanced registered nurse practitioner, mental health professional, or the stenographer or confidential clerk of any such person," Judge Nelson wrote in delivering his decision.
Planned Parenthood officials have said they will appeal the ruling. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union have indicated they will support Planned Parenthood's legal challenge.
"We clearly disagree with his position and we do believe that the pregnancy tests that are conducted in our medical clinics are in fact a medical service provided by a health practitioner and provided under the guidance of a physician," says Sandra Suarez, Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa's attorney. "They're medical services that become part of one's medical record."
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy has called Nelson's ruling "appalling," declaring that "the state must find a way to do its job without setting a dragnet for women who seek medical services at reproductive health care facilities. To allow this kind of fishing expedition to trample women's rights to confidential health care imperils that right."
According to Dillon, Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa has received "overwhelming support" in the form of phone calls, emails and financial donations. What's more, the inquiry does not appear to be scaring women away from seeking Planned Parenthood's aid. The Storm Lake clinic patient list has increased since the investigation began, Dillon says. Gloria Feldt, President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has taken the issue to the national media, arguing on television and radio in support of the Storm Lake clinic's position.
In Buena Vista County, Sheriff Chuck Eddy, whose nine deputies are all working on the case, insists that Planned Parenthood was not singled out by investigators. Rather, he claims the family planning group has singled itself out by balking at the county's request -- and he acknowledges that investigators still have no solid leads in their search for the infant's mother.
"Everybody else has cooperated and gone over their list of what they might have and we've checked all these out, checked all the leads that come in from the general public and at this time, we have nothing," Eddy says. Officials at Buena Vista County Hospital, however, tell a different story. Although a subpoena was issued allowing investigators to review the hospital's records, the information was never handed over, hospital officials say. Officials from Trimark Physicians group, a private medical firm which operates two clinics in Storm Lake, say they did cooperate with authorities, but they declined to say whether actual patient records were turned over.
Even as the legal wrangling continues, state and local Planned Parenthood officials in Iowa say they want to help Eddy and the county's other investigators, provided they can do so without violating the privacy of hundreds of women.
"If they came to us with the name of a suspect, we'd be more than willing to help, " said Dillon. "We know they've been working hard to solve this case and we know how hard it is for the people of Storm Lake."