Oregon, other U.S. senators push for privacy for women seeking reproductive health care

Nearly 30 U.S. senators, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden and
Jeff Merkley, asked the federal government Tuesday to ensure that the
identities of women seeking reproductive health care remain private.

Their letter to the head of the U.S. Department of
Human Services, Xavier Becerra, said that the U.S. faces a reproductive health
care crisis with states banning or limiting care and passing legislation to
punish patients and providers.

“Our nation faces a crisis in access to reproductive
health services, and some states have already begun to investigate and punish
women seeking abortion care,” the letter said. It is critical that (Health
and Human Services) take all available action to fully protect women’s privacy
and their ability to safely and confidentially seek medical care.”

It said the department should take action to update current
privacy laws to ensure they expressly name privacy protections in connection
with reproductive rights care.

“To safeguard the privacy of women’s personal health
care decisions and ensure patients feel safe seeking medical care, including
reproductive health care, we urge you to quickly initiate the rulemaking
process to strengthen privacy protections for reproductive health
information,” the letter said. 

The senators want the federal law  that protects the
privacy of medical records to make it clear that records are not to be shared
with law enforcement or with officials involved in civil or criminal
proceedings related to abortions.

The letter was signed by 29 senators, including Wyden,
Merkleyand Washington’s Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, all Democrats.
The only senator not a Democrat who signed the letter was Sen. Bernie Sanders,
an independent of Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats.

The letter said that legislators and prosecutors across the
country are trying to enforce abortion bans by investigating patients and
physicians. Both Texas and Idaho passed near-total abortion bans that
criminalized the procedure, opening providers and patients up for prosecution.
Last month, a federal judge paused a portion of Idaho’s law, saying it can’t
criminalize the procedure in emergency situations.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June,
the Biden administration has pledged to do what it can to protect abortion
rights. Also in June, Becerra said he would work to better protect patient and
provider privacy. 

The letter said the patchwork of state abortion bans has
caused confusion among providers about whether they have to turn over medical
records to state or local officials. 

“This confusion fundamentally threatens women’s health,
as patients may delay or avoid seeking the care they need out of fear their sensitive
health information could be weaponized against them. In recent weeks, states
have investigated and sought to punish patients and providers for seeking and
providing abortion care,” the letter said.

Abortion remains legal without any restrictions in Oregon.
Since passage of abortion bans, Oregon and other states that protect abortion
rights have faced a surge in demand from  out-of-state patients seeking
abortion care. At the state level, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and
legislators started work this summer to ensure Oregon medical providers aren’t
prosecuted for performing abortions for women from other states.