- 02 Feb 19
That is the only answer to data breaches of this kind, Hot Press says, following the launch of an investigation by the HSE, in response to allegations that a woman’s personal details were leaked to anti-choice groups after she had a termination in the National Maternity Hospital. By Roe McDermott. Additional reporting: Hot Press Reporters
Minister for Health Simon Harris has ordered the HSE to carry out an investigation, after a woman who had an abortion in Holles Street, went public with the accusation that her personal data had been leaked to anti-choice groups, who tried to lure her to a “clinic” – before calling her “disgusting.”
Minister Harris has said that it is “extraordinarily concerning and disturbing” that “anyone’s patient details could be leaked.”
That, we have to say, is putting it mildly – for, in truth, it suggests that a fundamental breach of the individual's right to privacy, as well as a breach of medical confidentiality, has taken place.
Social media reports suggest that the woman at the centre of the storm had originally been in contact with the Well Woman Centre about her pregnancy; and that she may then have been referred for an ultra sound, before finally being referred on to the National Maternity Hospital (NMH). She had a termination there, using medication.
While it is clear that as serious breach of trust occurred, it has not yet been established where the leak came from. Given the track record of the Well Woman Centre, the finger of suspicion is likely to be pointed in the direction of some rogue members of staff at the much-larger the National Maternity Hospital.
In a post on social media, the woman at the centre of the case detailed how, after her termination, she had an internal scan. She was told that no other scans were needed, and she was safe to go home from hospital. When she arrived home, she says that she received a call from a number unknown to her. When she answered, a man instructed her to come to a purported health clinic in Dublin to “re-book a scan.” The man was in possession of her personal details, including her phone number and address. She later received a text message telling her to come to a “clinic” on the north side of Dublin city.
The woman became suspicious and contacted the NMH and the Well Woman Centre. Neither had any knowledge of what it became clear was an entirely spurious 'appointment'. The woman subsequently discovered that the number from which she had been called is linked to an unofficial website that has been given a name which is deliberately confusingly similar to the official HSE ‘My Options’ site.
The woman recounted that she called the number back, asking about the credentials of the site and the man – who then allegedly started shouting abuse at the woman, telling her that she was “disgusting” for having had an abortion.
The HSE, the Dublin Well Woman Clinic, the NMH, the Data Protection Commissioner and Gardaí are all making inquiries about the alleged incident.
"It is really important," Hot Press editor Niall Stokes said, "that this should be dealt with through the courts. If an individual lifted the personal data of a patient and passed this on to the anti-choice aggressors, then the full weight of the law should be applied, for what is clearly data theft. In addition, any third party, who used that information, should be treated as an accessory to the theft and charged accordingly. The anti-choice bullies, who threaten and intimidate women – whether through aggressive picketing outside hospitals and clinics, or via data theft and intimidatory phone calls, must be let know in no uncertain terms that , if they are found guilty, they will be given custodial sentences. That may entail the use of the Prevention of Corruption Act – which should apply, even if money has not changed hands."
A number of politicians have also voiced their concerns. Senator Catherine Noone, the former chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, has said that if the allegations are true, “it is totally and utterly unacceptable”, and “very worrying.”
That much is undeniably true. The allegations are indeed extremely worrying, as they indicate not only that patient confidentiality is being breached, but that women are being targeted specifically by anti-choice groups. The only conclusion from which we can draw is that anti-choice activists are unscrupulous enough to breach data regulations by leaking personal addresses; and that they are attempting to lure women to unknown locations, with who knows what appalling aims in mind. Or perhaps they are just in the business of causing as much upset and hurt as they can.
What is worth remembering is that this is not the first instance of leaks by anti-choice bullies. Just three days after termination services became legal, an anti-choice group protested outside a Galway GP practice. Anti-choice groups also protested outside of Our Lady Of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Co. Louth at least twice.
On Friday February 1, one of the protesters outside of Our Lady Of Lourdes told The Journal.ie that he was there because the group had received specific information that two terminations were taking place in the hospital that day.
“We received reliable information that there were two abortions taking place in the hospital today," he boasted, "so our purpose is to have a prayerful, peaceful presence to remember that baby and to honour their lives however short they might be.” When asked about who was providing the group with this information and whether they were hospital staff, the man told The Journal that “We do have people kind of on the grapevine.” But he didn’t give any more details, saying, “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
That individual should now be interviewed by the Gardaí to find out who supplied the information, when and where. And so should all of the other individuals who were part of the placard waving group.
These events raise issues about whether new legislation may be required which would criminalise the leaking of any information whatsoever about abortions. Abortion services campaigner Ailbhe Smyth has called on Simon Harris to introduce legislation for exclusion zones around medical practices offering terminations, to ensure that women seeking abortion services are not intimidated or threatened by anti-choice groups.
That legislation has been promised by the Minister. With more to follow, we hope.