Kansas' attorney general cannot have unfettered access to the records of 90 patients who had abortions at two clinics, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday, ending a case that had sparked a national outcry over patient privacy.
Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, an outspoken abortion foe, subpoenaed the records last February as part of an investigation into possible violations of Kansas law, which forbids abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother's life is at risk. Kline said he also was investigating whether minors who had abortions were victims of child abuse.
The two clinics -- a Planned Parenthood facility in the Kansas City suburbs and one in Wichita operated by Dr. George R. Tiller, who specializes in terminating late-term pregnancies -- fought the subpoenas, arguing they would violate their patients' privacy.
On Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court agreed and ordered the trial judge to ensure that Kline needed the information and then to redact names and other confidential information before handing over files.
"The type of information sought by the state here could hardly be more sensitive, or the potential harm to patient privacy posed by the disclosure more substantial," Justice Carol A. Beier wrote for the court.
Abortion providers hailed the decision. "It's clearly a victory for women's medical privacy," said Peter Brownlie, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
Kline issued a terse statement saying that the ruling meant the subpoenas eventually would be honored.
"I'm pleased ... that the investigation can proceed," Kline said. The statement also said the attorney general had never sought names of adult women but made no mention of minors, who represent about one-quarter of the patients involved in the case.
Also on Friday, Kline was in a Wichita courtroom testifying that state providers of medical and mental health services should report to him the names of all minors who admitted having sex so that he could investigate whether they had been abused. Health groups have sued to block that order, saying it would be an invasion of privacy and discourage teens from seeking help from doctors and social workers.
Kline has argued that legally, any minor who has sex is a victim of child abuse. In June of 2003, his office issued an opinion requiring abortion clinics to report any patient under 16 years of age as an abuse victim. He testified Friday that all public employees, including doctors and teachers, are bound by that requirement to report when minors have suffered injuries. "Underage pregnancy is injury," Kline told the court.
Brownlie said that when Kline's subpoenas arrived about a year ago, the Planned Parenthood clinic was contacted by several nervous clients.
"Not only abortion, but family planning patients who were concerned that the fact that they were patients of ours would become public," Brownlie said.
Abortion rights and women's groups protested at the time that Kline could be setting a dangerous precedent, but the attorney general replied that he was required to investigate possible violations of the law and protect children.
Brownlie said that Planned Parenthood welcomed the attorney general's investigation, provided that privacy was safeguarded. His clinic, he said, obeys all requirements for reporting potential child abuse and does not perform late-term abortions.
"He's free to investigate us," Brownlie said of Kline. "We follow the law."