Patients who donated fetal tissue to science after obtaining an abortion no longer have to worry about the release of their medical records over a legal dispute, according to a settlement reached last week with the Arizona attorney general.
The legal dispute centered on the records of seven patients at Phoenix’s Camelback Family Planning who in 2015 donated fetal tissue after their abortions. The fetal tissue samples were then sent to StemExpress, a California tissue processing firm.
Arizona in 2015 enacted a rule requiring abortion clinics to report to state health officials about how they dispose of aborted fetal remains, as the Arizona Republic reported. The next year, the Republican-led state legislature outlawed the practice of donating fetal tissue from abortions to science.
Camelback Family Planning agreed as part of the settlement that its fetal tissue consent forms did not inform patients that StemExpress was “processing and reselling fetal tissue for thousands of dollars,” according to the Superior Court settlement filed January 19. The health clinic was paid $600 by StemExpress, but returned the money to the tissue processing firm in September 2015.
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Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich last year demanded that Camelback Family Planning turn over medical documents about the clinic’s procurement and disposal of fetal tissue, and subpoenaed the clinic director to testify about patient records.
The clinic sued, concerned about violations of federal and state privacy laws, doctor-patient privilege, and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“This was never about anything other than patient privacy, and once we were clear that patient privacy would be protected, we were happy to end the case,” said Jean-Jacques Cabou, attorney for the clinic, of the settlement agreement.
Cabou told Rewire the settlement came out of a series of discussions with the attorney general’s office.
“We agreed to follow the law, which we always have, and they agreed to stop asking for things that they shouldn’t have,” Cabou said.
Mia Garcia, the spokesperson for Brnovich, said in an email that the attorney general’s office “wanted to make sure patients got all the facts when signing consent forms.”
Arizona enacted the rule about fetal tissue disposal one month after the release of the first in a string of discredited anti-abortion videos that were filmed and edited to suggest that Planned Parenthood affiliates unlawfully sold fetal tissue that patients had donated to science. One of the videos included interviews with employees from StemExpress, the procurement company to which Camelback Family Planning furnished donated tissue.
Both Arizona’s legislative and executive branches are headed by anti-choice GOP politicians. The governor last year signed legislation prohibiting fetal tissue donations or fetal tissue research if the tissue was produced during abortion care. The law states that doctor-patient privilege “does not prevent the production of documents or records relevant to an investigation” of fetal tissue procedure, opening the door for state investigators to go after patient records.
The clinic’s lawsuit cited the attorney general’s anti-choice stance and political motivations. Brnovich, according to the filing, has staffed his office with former executives and litigators from the Center for Arizona Policy, the local arm of the anti-choice Family Research Council, and from Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal nonprofit that frequently defends anti-choice groups.
Garcia, the spokeswoman for Brnovich, told Rewire the “investigation has always been about protecting patients.”