The Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked an investigative panel from obtaining patient records from a physician who is one of America's few late-term abortion providers.
The grand jury is investigating whether Dr. George Tiller has broken Kansas laws restricting abortion, as many abortion opponents allege. The grand jury subpoenaed the medical files of about 2,000 women, including some who decided against having abortions.
Abortion has remained a controversial issue in the United States, even after the 1973 Supreme Court decision widely legalizing it. Many states have passed laws restricting the practice.
Abortion opponents forced Sedgwick County to convene the grand jury investigative panel by submitting petitions, the second such citizen investigation since 2006 of Tiller, who has long been at the center of the U.S. abortion battle. His clinic was bombed in 1985, and eight years later a woman shot him in both arms.
Tiller's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to quash the grand jury's subpoenas, and the court agreed to block their enforcement until it considers the issue.
Chief Justice Kay McFarland said Tiller's challenge raised "significant issues" about patients' privacy and a grand jury's power to subpoena records.
The Sedgwick County prosecutor presenting evidence to the grand jury had objected to the attempts to block the subpoenas, noting that the grand jury's term is limited, but McFarland said the grand jury's term can be extended.
'Worried about women's privacy'
The court set a Feb. 11 deadline for the county's chief judge and the retired judge presiding over the grand jury to file objections to the court's action. Those judges then have until Feb. 25 to file a response to Tiller's legal challenge.
Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group, called the high court's decision "extremely disappointing."
"There is no way to determine if the reasons for these late abortions were done within the narrow legal criteria without looking at the records themselves," she said. "His lawyers say they are worried about women's privacy. They are worried about protecting Dr. Tiller."
Tiller's attorneys, Dan Monnat and Lee Thompson, did not immediately return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
The grand jury is seeking records of all women who visited Tiller's clinic between July 2003 and last month and were at least 22 weeks pregnant at the time. The grand jury also subpoenaed information about current and former employees and referring physicians.
The edited patient records would not have the women's names, but they would have patient identification numbers. Tiller's attorneys claimed in court last week that in an earlier investigation, former Attorney General Phill Kline was able to track down patients' names using the identifying numbers on patients' files.
A spokesman for Kline, who is now Johnson County district attorney, denied that any patients had ever been identified.
Kline eventually filed 30 misdemeanor charges against Tiller before leaving office last year, only to see the case dismissed for jurisdictional reasons.