Woman loses her life and then her privacy after an abortion


About 150 people attended a memorial, prayer vigil, and a press conference by various anti-abortion groups in Germantown after the death of a 29 year-old woman who apparently died from abortion complications. The event was held in a parking lot next door to the offices of Leroy Carhart of Germantown Reproductive Health Services, where he performs abortions. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist February 14, 2013

Lots of people are opposed to the kind of late-term abortion that preceded the death of a woman in Maryland last week. I understand that.

But everyone should be opposed to the blatantly illegal violation of her privacy and the exploitation of her death by protesters using it to make their point.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Her name and photo have appeared on protest signs, in blogs and in newspapers.

The intimate details of her medical records — probably leaked by someone with access to that information at the Germantown clinic where she got the abortion or the Rockville hospital where she died — should never have seen the light of day, let alone be broadcast at a rally the day after her death.

That pesky HIPAA privacy law, the one that forces you to fill out a bazillion forms whenever you go to the doctor, did absolutely nothing to stop this.

The story is heartbreaking from the very place it begins.

Last week, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher from New York came to the Women’s Reproductive Center in Germantown for a late-term abortion, performed by LeRoy Carhart.

She was 33 weeks pregnant, married and wanted very much to have a child. She had a name picked out, a baby registry halfway filled. Her Pinterest board features photos of pink-headed infants along with baby food recipes she hoped to make, the ideal nursery decorated in pink and gray, and baby-book projects.

She not only wanted this baby, she clearly yearned for her, dreamed of her. Imagine what awful news she must have received for her and her husband to terminate the pregnancy.

That is a tragedy all alone.

But on Feb. 6, after the abortion procedure, something went wrong, and the woman was taken to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where she died the next morning. Her death is under investigation by Maryland authorities, including the chief medical examiner, the state Office of Health Care Quality and Montgomery County police.

The day after her death, protesters gathered outside the clinic with her name, big posters of her photo and grim details about her medical history and procedures.

“It was a perfectly healthy young woman that died,” said Michael Martelli, executive director of the Maryland Coalition for Life, an antiabortion advocacy group.

And how would you know that, Mr. Martelli? Do you know her?

No, he doesn’t, he told me.

So how on earth did protesters get all of her medical records? How did they get enough detail to make huge posters of her face, give details about her marriage and employment, and make claims about what went on inside her body?

“I can’t reveal our sources. These are confidential and anonymous,” Martelli said.

Relatives of the young woman didn’t talk to them. They told me they have said “No comment” to anybody who has called.

Unless someone inside the clinic contacted the antiabortion groups, the only other possible source of such sensitive information is the hospital.

Of course, the hospital can’t even confirm that she was there or that she died there.

“We maintain a fierce commitment to protecting the privacy of our patients and their care,” said hospital spokeswoman Marissa Levine.

If there is a violation of HIPAA laws, hospital officials investigate and discipline. They have fired people for such violations. So are they investigating this one?

“I can tell you, whenever we see information in the public domain about patient care, we absolutely look into it, internally,” she said.

The activists who target the Germantown clinic have had respectful, legal vigils outside of it year-round. They have even rented space across the street for a pregnancy counseling service. Nothing wrong with any of that.

But they have also bombarded the neighborhood of the landlord who leases space to the clinic, Todd Stave, with gory, Nazi-themed fliers. And they tracked down the school that Stave’s children attend and picketed the back-to-school nights.

They harassed his in-laws at their home and stood outside his brother-in-law’s dental office with gory abortion posters.

So it’s not surprising that they seized on this poor woman’s death last week. Martelli said that his group did not name her in their news conferences, news releases or rally and that whoever did that was acting on their own.

“We understand how horrible this situation is,” Martelli said. “And really, we can’t imagine what the family is going through. The family is in no way any type of target.

“We view the family and we view [the woman] as a victim,” he said, using her name.

Give me a break.

The protesters are exploiting this woman’s death and making other women think that their privacy is never truly protected when they seek an abortion.

This is not the way to reduce or end abortion. All it does is add to the suffering of a grieving family. And it is cruel.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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