White House wants rule to protect abortion patients' records

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Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting with a task force on reproductive health care access, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – The White House on Wednesday proposed a new federal rule to limit how law enforcement and state officials collect medical records if they investigate women who flee their home states to seek abortions elsewhere.

The proposal, prompted by a string of blows to abortion across the country, comes as the White House is staring down a legal challenge to a commonly used abortion pill that could upend access to the care across the entire country by Friday.

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Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters that it’s one of several new actions the administration is taking to push back against a wave of abortion restrictions that have been introduced since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. The administration is also launching a hotline for people to call and ask questions about prenatal, infant and reproductive care.

“The women in America in particular have been in a state of fear about what this means for them, what this means for the people they love,” Harris said.

The White House’s proposed rule would prohibit health care organizations from sharing personal medical records with authorities for investigations related to reproductive care in states where a woman legally obtained an abortion. While medical records are protected by federal privacy laws, health providers and insurers can be compelled to turn over medical records with a court order.

Doctors around the country have voiced concerns about protecting that medical information from law enforcement officials, said Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the office of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which proposed the rule change. The public can weigh in on the proposed rule for the next 60 days.

“We’ve had many conversations with providers, major medical associations and patient advocates about what they’re seeing on the ground and how the federal government can be helpful in ensuring medical records are kept private,” she said in a statement.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion last year, some women living in a stretch of Southern and Midwestern states that have largely outlawed abortion now travel hours to other states to get abortions legally.

The federal health agency’s new national phone number will provide information about prenatal, infant and abortion care as well as adoption, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced Wednesday. Becerra did not provide a phone number with his announcement.

The Biden administration is racing to roll out these new initiatives ahead of a pressing deadline imposed by a Texas judge that could revoke the Food and Drug Administration's approval of mifepristone, one of two drugs used in what is considered the most effective and safest way to carry out a medication abortion.

Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s order to pull the drug off the market goes into effect Friday, unless another court steps in. The Justice Department appealed the ruling on Monday. There is no precedent for a lone judge to overrule the FDA’s medical decisions

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday the judge’s ruling might embolden others to use a similar method to challenge the FDA’s approval other medicines, drugs and vaccines.

“This could happen to any medication Americans rely on, no matter how essential it is and no matter how long ago it was approved,” Garland said. Pharmaceutical companies filed a brief in support of the White House’s case on Tuesday night warning that the ruling could have ripple effects on life-saving medications.

Further complicating things for the Biden administration: a competing ruling by a federal judge in Spokane, Washington, issued on the same day directed federal officials not to hinder access to the drug in at least 17 states where Democrats sued to keep the drug’s availability intact. The issue is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court.


Follow the AP's coverage of abortion at https://apnews.com/hub/abortion.

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