Ashcroft Terrorizes New York Doctors

Attorney General Demands Patients' Private Abortion Records

Insisting there is no scientific purpose for subpoenaing these medical records, some women's health advocates say the attorney general's request amounts to harassment. "One strongly suspects that the purpose is to make life extremely unpleasant for these physicians and these institutions," says Wendy Chavkin, chair of the national doctors' organization Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. "The overzealous handling of this case communicates to physicians at large that life is going to be really difficult if you go forth with providing this service."

Of particular concern to Chavkin is the demand that doctors provide the names of their colleagues—including those not cited in the original suit. "That is straight from Joe McCarthy's handbook," says Chavkin, referring to the scare tactics the U.S. senator used in his 1950s witch hunt for Communists. "Ashcroft is clearly bent not only on chilling the provision of abortion but also on creating a climate of fear among doctors."

On that front, at least, the attorney general seems to be having some success. "I'm afraid that by limiting physicians' alternatives, patient care will suffer," says Masch, who works at both Bellevue and NYU hospitals. Doctors also have reason to fear for themselves, since the law would allow convicted doctors to be jailed as well as sued by the "father" and "maternal grandparents" of the fetus.

To be protected by the temporary injunction on the abortion ban, doctors need to be either individual plaintiffs in one of the suits or members of a plaintiff organization—so Masch joined the National Abortion Federation. The Health and Hospitals Corporation, the agency that represents the city's 10 public hospitals, including Bellevue, also joined the federation as an institutional member, according to a corporation spokesperson. As a result, the handful of doctors who perform contested abortions at city hospitals will, at least for now, be protected from prosecution. And, with city hospitals having joined the fray, the stakes in New York's mounting standoff over abortion are that much higher.

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at New School University.

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