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Justice scores wins in behalf of partial-birth abortion ban

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Justice Department finally has won a couple of rounds in its fight to defend a federal ban on partial-birth abortions.

A federal judge ruled March 12 the University of Michigan Health System must release records for patients who may have undergone partial-birth abortions. Judge Avern Cohn ordered the records be turned over to him by March 25. Cohn will give them to federal judge Richard Casey for a trial beginning March 29 in New York, according to LifeNews.com.

The Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act made a gain in another court March 17, when Casey refused to strike down the law before it goes to trial. Casey rejected the request for summary judgment before the trial from the National Abortion Federation and seven doctors. In explaining why a trial is needed, Casey said “a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether a partial-birth abortion is ever medically necessary to protect a woman’s health,” according to Law.com.

Trials in legal challenges to the law will open March 29 in not only Casey’s court but federal courts in San Francisco and Omaha, Neb. President Bush signed the legislation into law in November, but the courts quickly blocked its enforcement.

The law prohibits a procedure that normally involves the delivery of an intact baby feet first until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the infant’s skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain. The collapse of the skull provides for easier removal of the baby’s head. This typically occurs during the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy.

The Justice Department has sought records from doctors and clinics involved in challenges to the law, arguing they are needed to decide if, as the physicians contend, the abortions were medically necessary. In its findings in the law, Congress said the method is never medically necessary.

The Justice Department “believes that we can obtain the information needed to test the planitiffs’ claims of medical necessity while also protecting the privacy rights of individuals by having the hospitals or doctors delete information that would identify specific patients prior to releasing their records,” DOJ spokeswoman Monica Goodling said. The records will not contain names, Social Security numbers or other information that would identify patients, she said.

Supporters of the ban defended DOJ’s effort.

“Patient confidentially has been guaranteed, and the government needs these records to give the courts the information they need to adjudicate the case,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Trying to keep the records is obstructing justice, particularly when there is an iron-clad guarantee of patient confidentiality.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a written release DOJ “must be permitted to subpoena medical records to learn critical information about the physicians who performed the abortions -– not the patients who received them. The release of the medical records does not violate the privacy rights of patients but merely provides the government with important medical evidence it needs to defend a ban on one of the most horrific procedures every performed.”

Critics of the law decried the government’s action.

“The demand for the records was just one more effort in the administration’s attempt to limit our reproductive health options, this time by undermining our privacy and intimidating us from seeking medical care for fear of having our most personal and private secrets exposed to the government’s view,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America said in a written statement.

On March 5, a federal judge in San Francisco blocked DOJ’s effort to gain records from PPFA and some of its affiliates. Planned Parenthood challenged the partial-birth abortion ban in California.

In Michigan, Cohn ordered the patient records released but only after they are reviewed by Timothy Johnson, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at UMHS, according to The Detroit News. Johnson is among the seven physicians involved in the lawsuit filed in New York, The News reported.

A federal judge in Illinois has barred DOJ’s request for patient records from a Chicago hospital in the New York case, but the department has appealed, according to The News.