Citing a Texas statute passed last year that classifies fetuses as individuals, one Texas district attorney is threatening to prosecute doctors if they fail to tell authorities about illegal drug use by pregnant women. Rebecca King, district attorney for Potter and Armstrong counties in the Texas panhandle, sent a letter to Potter County physicians in September 2003, just after the law passed, warning them that they must "report a pregnant woman who is using or has used illegal narcotics during her pregnancy," according to the Dallas Morning News. She told the Morning News last week that she would prosecute doctors who failed to rat out their patients. King has already prosecuted two pregnant women under the law, she said.
But health care providers, women's rights groups, and even the anti-abortion group that pushed for the legislation and the legislator who sponsored it say King's interpretation of the law is not just wrong but also potentially damaging. State Sen. Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie), the author of the bill, has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion clarifying the law's intent. That opinion is expected in January.
Dr. Moss Hampton, an Amarillo obstetrician and gynecologist who has practiced for 20 years, told the Morning News King's stance threatens the doctor-patient relationship. "I think it's a sticky wicket and it puts us in a very precarious position," said Moss, a member of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' executive council. "In confidentiality the patient tells us a lot of things they expect us not to tell anyone else. It puts a little more distrust into the system."
But King argued that laws protecting doctor-patient confidentiality must yield to the imperatives of protecting unborn children. "You don't have a privacy act when you break the law. I'm doing this because I believe the law mandates it," she said.
"When you enlist secret police then you are intentionally, deliberately and devastatingly undermining the very relationship needed to produce healthy children," said attorney Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (http://www.advocatesforpregnantwomen.org). "This interpretation of the law demonstrates absolute disregard for maternal and fetal health by frightening women away from getting the health care they need during pregnancy."
King scoffed at that argument. "It is a minimal percentage of women who have any prenatal care who we are looking at here," she said.
But the Texas Medical Association is among the organizations asking Attorney General Abbott to support Sen. Allen's contention that King is overreaching. So is Texas Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion organization. "Her interpretation is incomplete and erroneous," spokeswoman Stacey Emick told the Morning News. "When legislators work hard to spell something out, it's surprising to see someone take that and not accurately interpret the law."