In mid-February, a tragedy unfolded in Maryland when a young mother arrived at the clinic of Doctor LeRoy Carhart to terminate a pregnancy due to medical complications. Unfortunately, she was one of the extremely rare — less than .3% of women need hospital care after an abortion — women who experienced complications after her abortion, and in her case, they were fatal. The story might have ended there, with a huge loss and sorrow for her family, but for the actions of anti-choicers who chose to make it a public spectacle, locating private medical records and outing her to the general public.
Weeks later, we’re still picking apart the legal tangle surrounding Patient X, as I’ll call her, though her name and other confidential medical details remain available online at a number of anti-choice sites.
Given that the woman traveled from out of state for the procedure, it’s likely she learned about medical complications after the point at which abortion was legal in her home state, and sought treatment at one of the few clinics that offers that kind of advanced medical care.
Compassionate, talented physicians like Dr. Carhart are not just risking their lives to do their work: they’re also providing a much-needed service to patients who are often dealing with difficult choices and an agonizing time in their lives. Less than 2% of abortions in the U.S. are performed after 20 weeks, and they happen when there’s a medical necessity. In other words, that developing fetus is very much loved and wanted.
Patient X’s death is under investigation, as is the case with any death resulting from surgical complications, although obviously the scrutiny is extra-close because of the nature of the procedure. But what’s under even closer investigation is how, exactly, her name, medical records and life became a matter of public discussion.
Writing on Reproductive Health Reality Check, Bridgette Dunlap chronicles how anti-choice protesters pieced together information from observations made at Carhart’s clinic and obituaries to figure out who she was. Even that doesn’t explain how they got access to medical records, though, which is the only way to explain the level of confidential detail they’ve disclosed to the public at events like a “memorial” staged to advance an anti-choice agenda. To do that, they would have had to have a source at the hospital where Patient X was treated, and that means a profound HIPAA violation occurred.
Dunlap discusses the legal ramifications of the case in her piece, noting the laws and caselaw precedents that come into play here and make the outing of Patient X clearly and obviously illegal, not just a violation of human decency. As if it wasn’t enough to violate the law, anti-choice protesters also did things like hunting up her baby registry and shaming her family members in public because they were related to a woman who had a medically necessary abortion. And then died.
The sheer level of callousness involved in this case really must be seen to be believed; if anyone doubts that anti-choice protesters will leave no stone unturned when it comes to their quest to shame and humiliate women for choosing a private medical procedure, and will stop at nothing when it comes to a war on choice, the horrible story of Patient X should put those doubts to rest. Her family should be allowed to grieve, rather than having to fight off hateful commentary because they lost a loved one.
While the debate over reproductive rights can be contentious, surely all should agree that medical privacy is a basic right, and that grieving families should be able to do so in peace without being forced to look at anti-choice propaganda with a loved one’s face on it.
Photo credit: Kate Ausburn