Representative files legislation to protect Missourians’ reproductive health data

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A new lawmaker wants to ban the state and law enforcement from using reproductive health data in their investigations.

Back in 2019, Missouri made national news after reports that the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) tracked women’s menstrual cycles. DHSS Communications Director Lisa Cox said Wednesday that wasn’t true then, and it’s not now. Still, Democratic lawmaker Rep. Eric Woods from Kansas City wants to make sure Missourians’ reproductive health data is private.

“Women are concerned that their data might be taken and used for some purpose against them,” Woods said. “The bill is an attempt to preempt any future bad actions and protect women’s privacy.”

Woods is new to Jefferson City and to politics. During his first week on the job, he said he filed legislation to protect the right to Missourians’ privacy in reproductive health care.

“The government has no business monitoring because we don’t know if a prosecutor might get a wild hair and decide to start sniffing down this path, and we have no protections against that,” Wood said. “I don’t want law enforcement obtaining, subpoenaing, and seeking reproductive health information in an attempt to prosecute women for any actions they may take for their reproductive health.”

Nearly four years ago, Cox said the state’s health department pushed back against reports that the director was tracking menstrual cycles after DHSS was looking into Planned Parenthood in St. Louis regarding its license.

“What we were finding is that some patients were having multiple failed abortions on the same pregnancy, up to three abortion attempts sometimes on the same pregnancy,” Cox said. “No one’s period was tracked. It was a matter of inspection in looking at one year’s worth of abortions that had occurred and diving deeper to look at those more serious complications.”

Under state law, when a doctor performs an abortion, the facility is required to fill out a form and send it to DHSS. On that form, there is a box that asks for the last date of the patient’s menstrual cycle. Cox said that the information on those forms was kept in the state’s database, but only patient numbers were used.

“In order to dig deep into those patient safety concerns, there’s a spreadsheet with all of the abortions for the year, and each of those fields was laid out there,” Cox said. “No patient identifying information; they are just patient numbers, not names.”

Woods said the legislation is in response to the post-Roe V. Wade world and the attacks on reproductive rights around the country.

“This was one instance where the data was de-identified, and it was used for a specific public health aim, but my concern would be in the future, we might have a public health director or department who is much less keen to respect people’s privacy rights,” Woods said.

House Bill 742 reads, “Any government entity shall not apply for a search warrant or issue any subpoena to obtain reproductive health data.” It would prohibit any computer application or website from releasing reproductive health data, such as a menstrual cycle tracker.

“Ultimately, this won’t change anything, but we weren’t tracking periods before, and we aren’t tracking periods today,” Cox said.

Last year, after the Roe V. Wade decision was released, Missouri became the first state to ban abortion unless in the case of a medical emergency. Cox said if the procedure is needed today, doctors are still required to fill out the form.

Here is the statement DHSS sent out back in Oct. 2019 regarding the false claims of the state tracking menstrual cycles.

“The truth is that as part of our initial inspection, a concern came up that DHSS may not be receiving complication reports for all failed surgical abortions, as required by law. Without a directive from Dr. Randall Williams, regulators devised a means to efficiently investigate that concern using legally-obtained information, which was required by law and which Planned Parenthood routinely submits. A Department investigator took the data in DHSS possession and narrowed it from approximately 3,000 abortions conducted in 2018 to 67 instances where the same woman had multiple abortions in the same year. The data was further narrowed to exclude multiple abortions and ultimately identified a case where a failed abortion was not reported by Planned Parenthood, in violation of Missouri law. Only then was the case shared by regulators with Dr. Williams. dr. Williams did not possess a spreadsheet of patient information, and although there was no wrongdoing by regulators, the first time he saw the spreadsheet was at the time of his deposition on Oct. 17. HIPAA compliance was not a factor in this activity as no patient data has been released. This information, in fact, was important in the investigative process in ensuring that facilities are safe for patients.”

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