The US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has raised many questions about potential efforts by law enforcement agencies to obtain data from healthcare and other service providers to detect the performance of a possibly unlawful abortion. For example, data collected by period-tracking apps, patients’ self-reported symptoms, or diagnostic-testing results might be used to establish the timeframe in which an individual became pregnant, and then demonstrate that a pregnancy was terminated, as part of investigative or enforcement efforts against individuals or organizations allegedly involved in such termination.
On June 29, 2022, the office within the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that is responsible for enforcing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), issued guidance addressing how HIPAA limits disclosures by covered entities and business associates to law enforcement agencies in the absence of a court order or other legal mandate. The guidance provides helpful insight on how OCR may use HIPAA enforcement to discourage unauthorized disclosures of protected health information (PHI) to law enforcement officials in the wake of new state laws outlawing abortion. The guidance also implicitly confirms, however, that HIPAA does not provide a complete shield against law enforcement and litigation-driven requests for abortion-related information.