Constitutional Right to Privacy

The fundamental right to privacy, guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution, protects against unwarranted invasions of privacy by federal or state entities, or arms thereof. As early as in Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113 (1973), the U. S. Supreme Court acknowledged that the doctor-patient relationship is one which evokes constitutional rights of privacy. But even that right is not absolute and must be weighed against the state or federal interest at stake.

For example, in Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977), a group of physicians joined patients in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a New York statute that required physicians to report to state authorities the identities of patients receiving Schedule II drugs (controlled substances). The physicians alleged that such information was protected by the doctor-patient confidentiality, while the patients alleged that such disclosure was an invasion of their constitutional right to privacy. The Supreme Court did not disagree with the lower court’s finding that “the intimate nature of a patient’s concern about his bodily ills and the medication he takes … are protected by the constitutional right to privacy.” However, the high court concluded (after balancing the state’s interests) that “Requiring such disclosures to representatives of the State having responsibility for the health of the community, does not automatically amount to an impermissible invasion of privacy.”

In the Whalen case (decided in 1977), the U. S. Supreme Court had (prophetically) added a note about massive computerized databanks of personal information. Said the Court:

“A final word about issues we have not decided. We are not unaware of the threat to privacy implicit in the accumulation of vast amounts of personal information in computerized data banks or other massive government files … The right to collect and use such data for public purposes is typically accompanied by a concomitant statutory or regulatory duty to avoid unwarranted disclosures … We … need not, and do not, decide any question which might be presented by the unwarranted disclosure of accumulated private data—whether intentional or unintentional—or by a system that did not contain comparable security provisions. We simply hold that this record [Whalen] does not establish an invasion of any right or liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Inside Constitutional Right to Privacy