Herrera Successfully Blocks Ashcroft Bid For Medical Records In ‘Partial-Birth’ Abortion Case

Judge Hamilton Denies Justice Department’s Motion to Compel Based on Considerations for Patient Privacy, Relevance, Burden of Production

U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton today denied a motion by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that would have forced the City and County of San Francisco to turn over more than 2,700 confidential medical records of patients who had received abortion services at City healthcare facilities in the last three years. Previously sought by the Justice Department in the case were the identities of City physicians who had performed abortions over the last three years as well as the identities of medical students and doctors who had been taught how to perform the medical procedure known as “partial-birth” abortion. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera took an aggressive stance against Ashroft’s demands, arguing in the City’s opposition brief that Ashcroft’s demand “is not only overbroad, it is outrageous.”

“We are extremely pleased with Judge Hamilton’s ruling today, which wisely acknowledged that the Justice Department’s move would have had a chilling effect not only on the privacy of our patients’ medical records but on the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship itself,” Herrera said. “The truth is, Attorney General Ashcroft’s demand for records was never a litigation tactic, but an intimidation tactic-intended to instill a climate of fear in our hospitals and clinics.”

The Justice Department’s motion came in the case of Planned Parenthood et al v. Ashcroft, a constitutional challenge to the of the Bush Administration’s “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003,” which was signed into law by President Bush on November 5. The City and County of San Francisco joined Planned Parenthood as co-plaintiff in litigation on Jan. 7, arguing that the law violates several guarantees under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, including women’s rights to privacy, life, and liberty; women’s right to bodily integrity; and medical care providers’ rights to due process.

Filed on behalf of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health and its employees, the City Attorney’s intervention in the case marked the first such move by a local government in the nation, pitting the City and County of San Francisco against a U.S. Justice Department under Ashcroft, who has publicly pledged “to devote all resources necessary to defend the law prohibiting partial birth abortions.”

The San Francisco case is Planned Parenthood et al v. Ashcroft, 03-4872.