High Court Passes On Abortion Privacy

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The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether states should have extensive power to catalog the medical records of women seeking abortions without a guarantee that their identities will remain private.

The court turned away a challenge to a requirement that South Carolina abortion providers allow the medical records of abortion patients to be copied and removed from clinics.

An abortion clinic and a doctor challenged the regulation as an unconstitutional violation of privacy, and argued it would put women in danger.

"Confidentiality is vital to women seeking abortions because they may face harassment and violence from their partners or others for having decided to undergo an abortion," lawyers for the clinic wrote in a court filing.

The requirement has been on hold while the clinic appealed. The high court's action, taken without comment, probably means the provision soon will take effect.

South Carolina wants abortion clinics to open all files, including patient medical records, if state investigators ask to see them. The clinic claims there is no guarantee the information will remain confidential once it is in the state's hands, and no penalty to the state or its employees if the information is leaked.

Separately, the clinic claims the regulation would allow public release of patient records, apparently including names and addresses, when a clinic or its staff is under investigation by state licensing authorities.

"Those proceedings are open to the press and any other interested persons, including those who participate in activism against abortion patients and providers," lawyers for the clinic wrote.

Lawyers for the state argued the requirement is part of ordinary government record keeping and there is no reason for the high court to get involved.

The case arose from the state legislature's move in 1995 to change the way abortion clinics are regulated. A Greenville, S.C., abortion clinic and a doctor challenged the additional medical and safety rules as unconstitutional and medically pointless. The changes were really intended to undermine abortion rights, the clinic claimed.

South Carolina legislators said the new regulations would make abortion clinics safer and would protect patients' health.

The Supreme Court declined to review an earlier appeal in the case, and most of the new regulations took effect in 2001.

A federal appeals court panel rejected the clinic's objections to the medical information regulations last year. The full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first agreed to give the case a second look, but then declined to do so. The clinic appealed to the Supreme Court earlier this year.

"If you put this information out there, antichoice activists are going to get hold of that information and use it," said Bonnie Scott Jones, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the clinic. "It poses a very great danger to women."

The case is Greenville Women's Clinic v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, 02-1235.

In other court action Monday:

  • The justices had no sympathy for an ex-husband jailed since 1995 for refusing to pay up in his divorce case.

    The court rejected an appeal from H. Beatty Chadwick, an attorney ordered to turn over $2.5 million to a court. Chadwick was accused of hiding the money during divorce proceedings. His imprisonment in Pennsylvania is one of the longest on record for civil contempt.

    Barbara Jean Crowther Chadwick claimed her ex-husband hid the money in overseas bank accounts rather than comply with an order to deposit it with a Delaware court. He said it was lost in a bad investment.

    The case is Chadwick v. Chadwick, 02-1346.

  • The court refused to salvage Kentucky's plan to display the Ten Commandments on a granite monument near the state Capitol.

    The state Legislature ordered the display in 2000, but the monument has never gone up. The American Civil Liberties Union won a lower court ruling preventing the display.

    The monument, six feet tall and four feet wide, was donated to the state in 1971 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. It stood until the late 1980s in an obscure area near a parking lot, when it came down for a construction project. It has been in storage since.

    The 2000 resolution directed that the monument be placed alongside secular monuments and a giant floral clock near the Capitol. The placement was supposed to emphasize the Ten Commandments' historical place in the development of law, but a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

    The case is Russ v. Adland, 02-1241.
    • Lloyd Vries

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