Abortion Health Reproductive Rights

Missouri’s State Health Department Tracked Patients’ Periods in an Attempt to Identify Failed Abortions

Missouri’s top health official testified Tuesday that the state health department kept a spreadsheet monitoring detailed personal information about Planned Parenthood patients, tracking patient’s menstrual cycles with the aim of identifying those who had failed abortions — news that has raised questions about patient privacy violations.

The spreadsheet included patients’ medical identification numbers, dates of medical procedures, gestational age of fetuses, and the date of the patient’s last menstrual period, the Kansas City Star reported. Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Dr. Randall Williams said he had a state health inspector create the document using medical records accessed during the state’s annual inspection. The document did not include patient’s names.

Williams’s testimony was part of a hearing over whether Planned Parenthood — Missouri’s lone abortion clinic — can keep its license to perform abortions, the latest move in the battle over abortion access in Missouri. State officials refused to renew the clinic’s license in June, citing concerns over “failed abortions.”

Williams, an OB/GYN, said he attempted to use the data to determine if women who went in for follow-up appointments after abortions at the St. Louis Planned Parenthood suffered complications. He said his goal was to protect patients, but critics called his investigation an invasion of privacy and demanded his resignation and an investigation by the governor.

Democratic Representative and House minority leader Crystal Quade called on Governor Mike Parson to “immediately investigate whether patient privacy was compromised or laws broken and determine if this is a person who Missourians can be comfortable having in position of public trust.”

“Based on the politics of the state and the passing of an egregious abortion ban bill, I don’t have a lot of hope that the governor is going to make this a priority,” Quade said in an interview.

In May, Republican Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a law banning abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy with no exceptions for cases of rape and incest. A federal judge blocked the state from enforcing the ban in August.

The state says it ultimately found four patients who had “failed abortions” and had to return to Planned Parenthood more than once for the procedure to be successful, including one case that was not reported by Planned Parenthood, the Star reported. “Planned Parenthood was not compliant with the complication report requirement for failed abortions. Regulators realized this, and as a result they used the tools they had to protect the health of those who seek abortions at Planned Parenthood,” Williams’s department said in a statement.

Women’s health experts emphasized that abortion is a safe medical procedure and said a follow-up appointment after an abortion does not necessarily indicate that an abortion failed.

The tracking of women’s menstrual periods recalls China’s practice of limiting families to one child to control population growth, said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University Langone Health.

The Chinese government kept details about women’s contraceptive use and whether people were sterilized, pregnant, married or single. “When a government official monitors your reproductive behavior, you are perilously close to replicating totalitarian regime,” Caplan said.

State officials have refused to renew the license for Missouri’s last remaining abortion clinic. If closed, Missouri would become the first state in decades to lack an abortion provider. Missouri is currently one of six states with only one abortion clinic, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advocates for abortion rights.

Sources: Kansas City Star 10/29/19; Time 10/31/19; TWP 10/30/19

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