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Legal privacy boost proposed for abortion care

Regulators want to revise HIPAA laws so that health care information cannot be disclosed to assist in prosecutions.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Concerned about some state efforts to criminalize abortion within their borders as well as outside them, the Biden administration on Wednesday proposed revisions to privacy laws for people who facilitate or receive the procedure.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced its intention to revise the law commonly known as HIPAA, short for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, citing the new legal landscape in the wake of the landmark decision that struck down the federal right to abortion last year.

“When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, nearly half a century of precedent changed overnight,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Wednesday. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to protecting women’s lawful access to reproductive health care, including abortion care.”

Existing HIPAA rules permit, but do not require, certain disclosures to law enforcement in specific circumstances. The proposed revision, on the other hand, would prohibit the use or disclosure of protected health information to “investigate, or prosecute patients, providers, and others involved in the provision of legal reproductive health care, including abortion care."

Reproductive health care would also be defined under the law to include “prenatal care, abortion, miscarriage management, infertility treatment, contraception use, and treatment for reproductive-related conditions such as ovarian cancer.”

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, essentially returning the issue of abortion to the states. Strict restrictions on the procedure soon came into effect across the country, with Florida, Iowa and Georgia among a group of states that have approved or are considering legislation to ban abortion as early as six weeks' gestation. Those bans kick in well before the earliest point at which women can test for potential birth defects, typically starting at 10 weeks.

In a similar vein, several states have hinted at potential criminal prosecutions for people who travel outside their boundaries to receive an abortion. In Idaho, where all forms of abortion are now outlawed, the governor signed a bill last week making it illegal for adults to assist minors in obtaining an abortion in any capacity without parental consent. 

The HHS rule would apply to care that is “lawful under the circumstances in which it is provided,” meaning if it is provided in a state where abortion is legal.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order last year directing HHS to strengthen the protection of reproductive health care services. 

“The continued advancement of restrictive abortion laws in States across the country has created legal uncertainty and disparate access to reproductive healthcare services depending on where a person lives, putting patients, providers, and third parties at risk and fueling confusion for hospitals and healthcare providers, including pharmacies,” Biden declared in signing the order. “There have been numerous reports of women denied health- and life-saving emergency care, as providers fearful of legal reprisal delay necessary treatment for patients until their conditions worsen to dangerous levels.”

Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, said doctors are concerned that they or their patients may end up in jail for any services related to an abortion.

“Trust is critical in the patient-doctor relationship and medical mistrust can damage and chill patients’ relationship with their providers, imperiling patient health,” Rainer said in the release. “Today’s proposed rule is about safeguarding this trust in the patient-provider relationship, and ensuring that when you go to the doctor, your private medical records will not be disclosed and used against you for seeking lawful care.”

Beyond a surgical abortion, the use of pills to induce an abortion was thrown into limbo when a Texas judge on Friday halted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decadesold approval of the abortion pill mifepristone, concluding the agency ignored safety concerns due to political pressure.

Taken with stomach ulcer drug misoprostol, mifepristone can induce abortion up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy. Medication abortions make up 53% of all abortions in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute — a reproductive rights research and policy organization.

The abortion pill fight is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Health, National

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