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Just How Private Are Your Private Medical Records?

Talcott Camp,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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July 1, 2009

Specifically, when can someone else, who sues your doctor, obtain your records? According to the decision the Ohio Supreme Court issued today (PDF) in Roe v. Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region only under specific and limited circumstances. In this case, John and June Roe claimed that a Planned Parenthood clinic had improperly provided their teenage daughter with an abortion. With the financial support of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, their lawyers filed the suit, and then, in a court process called “discovery,” demanded that Planned Parenthood turn over the medical records of all the minor patients the clinic had seen over a 10-year period. The Roes were willing, however, to receive the records with personally identifying information “redacted” — essentially blacked out with a Sharpie.

The ACLU became involved to help stop this potential invasion of medical privacy. When the Roes’ attempt to obtain the private medical records reached the Ohio Supreme Court, we filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians; the Society for Adolescent Medicine; the National Association of Social Workers; the National Center for Youth Law; the Center for Adolescent Health & the Law; the Ohio NOW Education and Legal Fund; the Ohio Domestic Violence Network; ACTION OHIO Coalition for Battered Women; Break the Cycle; and Women Empowered Against Violence, Inc. As our brief explained, these organizations entered the case to protect the minors whose records were at stake in the case, who were never asked for and never gave their permission for anyone to see their medical records, and who therefore had no opportunity to object to this violation of their privacy.

Our brief argued that disclosure of the records — even in redacted form — would undermine minors’ confidence that their reproductive medical information would be kept private, and thereby drive them away from seeking this critical care.

In today’s ruling (PDF), the court made the important point that the records would not lose their privileged (private) status simply by being redacted.

Those who seek to harass and deter providers of abortion care will not stop, but today’s ruling is a victory for the medical privacy and medical wellbeing of minors in Ohio.

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