CHICAGO The Kansas attorney general, as part of a criminal investigation into child rape and late-term abortions, is demanding that two health centers hand over the medical records of about 90 female patients, including minors.
The investigation was disclosed in a filing to the Kansas Supreme Court by two unidentified clinics, which had been ordered by a district court judge to disclose the patients' names, as well as their medical histories, birth control, sexual practices and other personal details.
Advocates on each side of the abortion debate said they were surprised by the move, and said it was rare for medical facilities to be ordered by a court to give such broad access to records as part of a criminal inquiry.
On Thursday, Atty. Gen. Phill Kline a foe of abortion said at a news conference in Topeka, Kan., that he needed access to the files and the entirety of the patients' personal information to do his job.
"I have the duty to investigate and prosecute child rape and other crimes in order to protect Kansas children," Kline said.
The two Kansas clinics have not been identified by name or location.
Debates about abortion rage in Kansas, in part because Wichita is the home of Women's Health Care Services, one of the country's few clinics that provide abortions to women in the later stages of pregnancy.
Women from all over the country travel to see Dr. George R. Tiller, who runs the clinic. Antiabortion activists routinely picket Tiller and the clinic, and follow its employees home and around town.
Tiller and the Women's Health Care Services clinic declined to comment on the investigation Thursday, or to say whether they were involved.
In October, District Judge Richard Anderson in Shawnee County, Kan., ruled that the attorney general's office could get the files and information after investigators said they suspected the records included cases in which adult women had undergone late-term abortions and girls age 15 and younger had had abortions.
In Kansas, the age of sexual consent is 16. State law prevents abortions from being performed at or after 22 weeks of gestation, unless done to protect the health of the mother.
"Rape is a serious crime, and when a 10-, 11- or 12-year-old is pregnant they have been raped under Kansas law," Kline said at the news conference.
Lawyers for the clinics, who filed the 40-page legal brief Tuesday, are asking the state Supreme Court to quash the subpoena.
The clinics, which described the attorney general's subpoena as a "fishing expedition," said that they would be willing to release the records as long as specific identifying information such as names was blocked out.
Otherwise, Kline would "learn the names and other identifying information of these women, and many intimate details of their lives
none of which are likely relevant to the inquisition."
Kline is expected to file a response to the brief by March 14. A hearing on the clinics' appeal has not been set.
Kline said his office was pursuing the files in an effort to investigate possible crimes. A child's privacy is always protected, Kline said in a statement, "and the clinics should not act to protect the secrecy of the predator."
Other documents tied to the investigation, which was first reported by the Wichita Eagle newspaper, remain sealed.
Lawyers for the clinics said a gag order, issued by Anderson, prevented them from discussing the case.
The order also blocked the clinics from letting patients know that their records would be released, said Elizabeth Herbert, a lawyer for one of the clinics.
"That's an outrageous violation of privacy," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.
"These people don't know their personal and private information are at risk. It's as if these women are being treated as terrorists or worse."
The debate over medical privacy has been an ongoing battle.
The issue was raised last year when the Justice Department sought to subpoena the medical records of women who had abortions at hospitals.
The subpoenas targeted at least six hospitals, including facilities operated by universities in Philadelphia, New York and Michigan.
The subpoenas were in conjunction with federal lawsuits that challenged a federal ban on a procedure that opponents call "partial-birth" abortion, usually performed in the second trimester.
Medical privacy became an issue in a 2002 police investigation in Storm Lake, Iowa, when a newborn was found dead in a recycling center.
In an effort to find the baby's mother, the Buena Vista County attorney obtained a court order to gain access to the medical records of women who had taken pregnancy tests at local hospitals.
When Planned Parenthood refused to follow the ruling, a district judge ordered the clinic to release its records to police. The Iowa Supreme Court stayed the order, and prosecutors withdrew the investigatory subpoena.
Abortion procedures and some information about the patient such as age are reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, legal experts say. Many details about the patient, such as name, are kept anonymous.
In 2003, 78 patients under the age of 15 had an abortion, according to Kansas statistics. That accounted for less than 1% of abortions reported to the state that year.
The brief filed by the clinics contended that Kline had reinterpreted Kansas law regarding how abuses against children were reported to the state by medical professionals, in part to gain access to sensitive medical files.
In 2003, Kline's office tried to force medical providers to report any information they had about girls younger than 16 engaging in sexual activity. But a U.S. district judge issued a temporary restraining order. The case remains unresolved.
Kline, a Republican who ran on a conservative platform of tax and abortion issues, served eight years in the state Legislature before making an unsuccessful congressional run in 2000.
In 2002, the resident of rural Shawnee County won the four-year post of state attorney general.
His office has aggressively pursued cases against online pedophiles, and has maintained that the law allowing late-term abortions is restricted to physical health, not mental.
"The law does not allow a mental-health exception for third-trimester abortions, but it's been interpreted wrongly to include that," Kline told the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2003. "It's not a religious context issue to me
. It is an issue about enforcing the law."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times