Archive for Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Debate over privacy, baby’s death divides Iowa town

September 4, 2002


— In her dozen years as manager of a Planned Parenthood clinic in small-town Iowa, Sue Thayer thought she had seen it all pickets, threats and, locked away in a file cabinet, the records of women with problems she never imagined.

But nothing comes close to the furor that has erupted in the months since the sheriff demanded to see some of those files in hopes of solving the gruesome death of a newborn.

Planned Parenthood's refusal to turn over the records has stirred debate throughout the country and divided this farm town of about 10,000.

It began in May, with the discovery of a baby boy who had been dismembered by machines at the county garbage sorting center. Unable to identify the baby or establish the cause of death, sheriff's deputies turned to the town's doctors and nurses to find out who the mother was.

Two Storm Lake doctors' offices and the hospital provided investigators with the names of expectant mothers who could not be accounted for. Yet when deputies showed up with a subpoena for the names and addresses of women who had undergone pregnancy tests, Planned Parenthood said no.

The organization, which claims that doing so would violate the privacy of the women, appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. On Friday, the high court agreed to hear the case.

Hidden identities

"For many women, it's the most personal test they've ever had done," Thayer said. "They come in expecting the information will stay here. Some women even use the back door. Some don't use their real names."

Buena Vista County Atty. Phil Havens said patients at the clinic cannot expect total privacy because in most cases, they do not see a doctor or even a nurse.

As for any inconvenience caused by the opening of the records, "I'm sorry for that. I apologize," Havens said. "But a human being was thrown into the garbage and shredded and I think that crime was important enough to society to at least attempt to find out who did it."

The case has been the talk of Storm Lake's cafes and the editorial pages of the local papers.

"I am not ashamed, nor am I embarrassed to admit that I have gone to Planned Parenthood," one teen wrote in a signed letter to the editor. Another the daughter of a sheriff's deputy argued that such issues shouldn't be discussed "with a law enforcement officer knocking at your door."

"Let's face it. It's a small town we live in. People talk," she wrote.

Conservative bias

That is exactly why the records should be protected, Karen Hixon said as she ate lunch at the coffee shop across from the courthouse.

"It isn't fair to those people who went in confidence," she said. "Just the idea that you can have someone come up and say, 'I heard you were pregnant,' is awful."

"But if it were my granddaughter, I'd want to know about it and I'd want her punished," Sandra Morris said as she arranged flowers at the grocery store.

The issue is clouded by anger over Planned Parenthood's very presence here, said Dana Larsen, editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune.

The clinic, which serves six counties, does not perform abortions. But that distinction is difficult for many to make in this conservative, mostly Christian community where hand-painted signs reading "You Know Abortion Is Wrong" rise out of cornfields.

"I think people have forgotten what they were arguing about in the first place," Larsen said. "There's really nobody around talking about the baby or how to keep this from happening again."

Leads run out

The uproar has surprised Sheriff Chuck Eddy, who said he half-expected Storm Lake's new mothers to hold their infants up to the window outside his office to prove they were not to blame.

Sheriff's deputies trying to find the mother have inquired at schools and churches and ran DNA tests on a few women who were thought to have been pregnant. They have also looked for households using the same garbage bags the baby was found in, with no luck. The sheriff said he has run out of leads.

The high court is not scheduled to hear arguments until December. Even then, the records may not help. The baby's mother could have been from out of state. She could have used a false name. Or she might never have gotten a pregnancy test or any other care; she might not have even known she was pregnant.

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