Thursday, June 03, 2010

Privacy Rights and Family History

Privacy is a touchy subject these days.  Legislators are in a hurry to pass laws that "protect" privacy to make their constituents happy.  In California we have had bills passed "protecting" vital records.  Even though identity theft originates in other ways, we keep passing laws restricting the access to vital records.  Seems like we should be passing laws that really address the causes of identity theft.

Now before you get mad and tell me identity theft is a huge problem, I know it is.  Someone stole my husband's credit card number and used it for several purchases.  And even with all the proof we had that someone stole his credit card number, the credit card company would not credit us the amount back.  But the person who did this didn't get my husband's information from his birth certificate, they got it through the internet.

And then we have privacy in relation to medical files. The theory behind this is a good thing; most of us don't want the world to know about medical procedures or a diagnosis we have had.  But what happens in the case of someone who has passed away?  Our laws state that person still has a right to privacy.  But what if that person's privacy and a current family member's right to know intersect?  What if someone in the past had a disease that affects current family members?  Who does the privacy protect in that case? And who does it harm?

I once spoke to the record keeper at a local mental health hospital and she was telling me how they have records going back 100 years. They destroy much of the record to save space but they keep a portion of each file.  However, in the state of California you as a family member cannot access that record, unless you get a physicians request or a court order.  Do people from 100 years ago need protection from their descendents?  From what?  Wouldn't a greater good be served to allow descendants to have access to information that may affect their own health?
These are important issues that too often are answered with a knee jerk response, instead of a careful analysis.

I think most of my readers know that one of my all time favorite books is Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg.  It is now out in paperback and is a great genealogical primer.  I have heard Steve speak and he is one of the best presenters I have ever heard.  When I heard him I wished that he was given much more than one hour. 

Steve has written an op-ed piece on our medical privacy laws that should be read.  This is an important topic for genealogists, as well as everyone. I encourage you to read it.

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