After U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft dropped his effort to subpoena the medical records of patients who allegedly had a controversial abortion procedure performed at seven hospitals, a San Francisco federal judge last week ruled the law prohibiting that procedure unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled that the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which President Bush signed in November 2003, is unconstitutionally vague, does not offer exceptions to preserve a pregnant mother's health and threatens a woman's right to choose a legal abortion.
It is the first ruling in three trials challenging the constitutionality of the law banning the procedure officially called intact dilation and extraction, more commonly known as partial-birth abortion. In her 117-page decision, Hamilton wrote that the law "poses an undue burden on a woman's right to choose a second trimester abortion" and accused Congress of ignoring scientific evidence when it passed the law.
After the law's signing, three abortion advocacy groups filed challenges, alleging that sometimes the procedure was medically necessary. Hamilton agreed with one group, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and granted its motion to prevent the government from enforcing the law at its 850 clinics. Federal judges hearing similar legal challenges in Nebraska and New York by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Abortion Federation, respectively, have not yet ruled, setting up potential conflicts between federal circuits and the possibility of a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In defending the lawsuit filed by the National Abortion Federation and six physicians, Ashcroft served seven hospitals with subpoenas last November, demanding the medical records of patients he believed had partial-birth abortions there. Ashcroft said the government needed to know if any of the abortions provided by the physicians challenging the law were medically necessary. Hospitals, medical ethicists and privacy advocates denounced the move as an intrusion into patient privacy. Federal district and appellate judges in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York either refused or delayed the subpoena requests. In April, Ashcroft dropped the effort to speed the trials (May 3, p. 16).
"This is one issue that's going to go on and on until it's resolved at the highest court level," said American Hospital Association spokesman Richard Wade. "Every analysis we've heard is that this is going all the way to the Supreme Court."
Supporters and foes were quick to respond.
"Today's ruling is a landmark victory for medical privacy rights and women's health," Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt said in a news release. "The Ashcroft Department of Justice can no longer threaten Planned Parenthood doctors with the daunting specter of criminal prosecution for putting their patients first."
The National Right To Life Committee's legislative director, Douglas Johnson, said in a news release that Hamilton's hostility to the law has been evident throughout the judicial proceedings and in many passages in her ruling. He noted, however, that "a one-vote shift on the Supreme Court would allow the ban on partial-birth abortions to be upheld."
Justice Department spokeswoman Monica Goodling said the department is reviewing Hamilton's order.
"The department will continue to devote all resources necessary to defend this act of Congress, which President Bush has said `will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America,' " Goodling said in a news release.