This is an opinion piece that originally ran in the Concord Monitor on Wednesday, January 3, 2018.
Roe v. Wade and the resulting case law around abortion are not actually about abortion. They are about a woman’s right to privacy. Decisions about reproductive health are some of the most private decisions a woman can and will make. The right to privacy in this context has been repeatedly reinforced by federal courts.
Here in New Hampshire, we have gone above and beyond even federal law in recognizing and protecting the right to privacy. That is why it is particularly concerning that the New Hampshire Legislature is seeking to collect information about abortion that directly and unnecessarily threatens a woman’s right to privacy and at great taxpayer expense.
House Bill 471, which will be voted on in the House today, would set up an onerous and expensive data collection scheme, wherein abortion providers would have to collect and provide the state with individualized reports on patients who undergo abortions. While supporters of the bill argue that by providing patients with designated identification numbers their privacy is protected, the truth is that any time data is collected in an individualized format, there is a risk that it will be used to re-identify individuals.
Were the data to be collected in aggregate form, this would not be an issue. And while we appreciate the Committee on Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs’ attempts to add additional protections, the bill still explicitly calls for individualized data and therefore continues to threaten the privacy of patients and providers.
The information collected and shared, in violation of patient privacy, is highly personal. The data includes a woman’s use of contraceptives, the estimated gestational age of the fetus, the method of termination, and the patient’s county or municipality. Patients have numerous reasons for wanting to keep this sensitive data private. Such data would typically be restricted to a patient’s medical records, which are protected under numerous laws. And yet, HB 471 would mandate that abortion providers send this data to the state.
Making the issue worse, this information is not medically necessary. Abortion is not a particularly risky procedure, but it is particularly private one. Any attempt by the state to collect such personal and private data should come with a very explicit and strong state interest. And yet so far, no specific health-related reason has been provided for why the state needs this data and in this individualized form.
Some supporters have claimed that the information is needed to determine the state’s pregnancy rate. However, given that no effort is being made to collect information on spontaneous abortions or miscarriages, the data collected under HB 471 will not result in any greater understanding of our state’s pregnancy rate.
The Department of Vital Records and Statistics does not collect this type of data on any other medical procedure. Not on bypasses, biopsies, colonoscopies or other medical procedures that could reveal health patterns in the general population. This intrusive data collection is reserved for abortion, one of the most private procedures a woman can endure. Given the absence of a medical necessity for this data, our concern is that the real impact of this bill will be to further burden abortion providers and target women who undergo abortion, regardless of the circumstances.
This is not a cheap undertaking either. According to the bill’s fiscal note, implementing HB 471 will cost the Department of Vital Records and Statistics over $162,000 in the first year to set up the data system, and then tens of thousands of dollars each subsequent year to maintain it. That is a hefty price tag, particularly to collect data that has no obvious health-related purpose.
In a state that so deeply values the right to privacy, this unnecessary assault on women’s right to privacy should be heavily scrutinized. The debate about abortion will continue, but it is wrong to target women and threaten to reveal personalized data in an effort to further stigmatize and deter abortion. Legislators should vote against HB 471 and in support of patient privacy.