A while back a woman sued a wireless telephone carrier because they accidentally blew the lid off of her affair:

The husband became suspicious when he noticed a number frequently called on the bill and, after dialing it, was told by a man who answered that he recently had a three-week affair with Nagy. He left Nagy and their children in August 2007.

“The affair was over,” Ms Nagy told Canwest News Service. “The thing that really hurt me is that it all came out not through my own doing.”

She blamed Rogers for the breakup, for having “breached my privacy.”

It’s pretty obvious that Rogers did in fact screw up when they started sending the bill home against her wishes. She may well have a legal case depending on the fine print. But… well… her culpability in what happened all but goes without saying.

Generally speaking, though, I am unsympathetic to the notion of privacy-amongst-spouses. Before getting married, I had assumed that I would have more rights than I apparently do when it comes to Clancy. It’s not that Clancy is a secret-keeper, but rather it’s dealing with third parties that the problem comes up.

Several years ago we got a call from a bill collector that said that Clancy owed them money. However, when I asked what it was about, they couldn’t tell me due to “privacy regulations.” At first, I didn’t really know what this meant because as far as I knew they were under no obligation (generally speaking) not to tell people about your debt. In fact, I’d read articles about collection agencies telling neighbors and others about the debt in order to shame them into paying. So why couldn’t they tell me what this debt was about? The answer came pretty quickly after thinking about it. It wasn’t so much debt collection regulations, but rather HIPAA regulations. It related to medical care and they couldn’t tell me that she had sought medical care. I asked this point-blank and the collector essentially confirmed that it was medical in nature.

She couldn’t tell me more than that and she wasn’t the only one. I tried to take over the task of paying the power bill when we were living in Cascadia and I couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me. It didn’t matter whether I was her husband or not.

In my view of marriage, this really shouldn’t be. Unless there is a legal separation in place or something like that, I believe that Clancy has the right to know what I owe and to whom. I believe that she has a right to my medical records. When it comes to her, I think that I waive rights of privacy.

The medical records question is a bit stickier, though, in practice. In Estacado, Clancy would have patients that were on birth control without the knowledge of her spouse. A combination of Catholicism and macho immigrant culture. I am extremely sympathetic to these women who don’t want to bear any more children but also don’t want to run headlong into her husband’s ideology. If she gets a shot and he doesn’t know about it, it helps keep the peace. A peace based on dishonesty, but a peace nonetheless. His having access to her medical bill compromises that. I’m not comfortable with that, but I am not sure that sways my thinking all that much.

Of course, I say all this and often there are things that I don’t want to know. While I would try to talk a girlfriend out of having an abortion, under the assumption that I couldn’t it would probably be better off for everyone if I simply didn’t know about it. The same would probably apply to a wife, though Clancy and I are of a similar mind on the ethics of the issue and so it isn’t quite so much an issue. Had I married staunchly pro-choice Julianne, it might be more of an issue. Then again, pro-choice as she was, it’s unlikely she would have aborted a child in marriage the same way that she probably would have if one of our pregnancy scares had turned out to be the real deal. Would I want to know about it? Probably not. Should I have no right to know about it? Murkier. Keeping in mind here that the question is not whether abortion is some sort of special thing that a husband should have the right to know about but rather whether it would constitute some sort of exception to what I generally believe a spouse ought to be able to know about.

Also murkying the waters here is the question of STD testing. Now I believe that a spouse should be able to know if he or she is at risk of an STD from his or her spouse. However, what if a test comes up negative? Does a wife have the right to know that a test was run? It would certainly raise questions. On one hand, I don’t think that a husband or wife has a “right” to keep infidelity a secret. On the other, if getting testing means his affair is more likely to be discovered then he is less likely to get tested to begin with and who does that serve? It’s not dissimilar to the question of STD testing in general. If someone knowingly spreads HIV they can be tried to murder and it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t. However, does that then mean the secret is not getting tested?

During the whole Schiavo mess, one of the reasons I came down in favor of pulling the plug had nothing to do with a “right to die” (though I support one) and a lot more to do with marriage. Her husband’s motivations may have been suspect, but she signed over that sort of decision-making to him when she married him. I’m even tempted to say that a spouse’s wish ought to preempt a living will, though I would need to think more on that.

Anyhow, for non-medical issues such as paying the power bill or even paying off a medical bill even if the spouse does not know what for, I lean pretty strongly in favor of a spouse being given the authority to pay bills whether overdue or current. And I think that the husband has a right to see if she’s been calling a lover. The legal question of whether or not Rogers’s policy gave her a reasonable expectation that he would not find out and if that has some sort of standing… well, that depends on what the law is and not what I think it should be.

“It’s not my fault” is still, of course, a pretty lame cop-out, regardless of what the law is or should be.


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10 Responses to Spousal Privilege

  1. Mike Hunt says:

    I tried to take over the task of paying the power bill when we were living in Cascadia and I couldn’t.

    I don’t understand. If you send them a check, are they going to shred it? Shouldn’t you be ok as long as you send the top of the bill and put the account number on the check?

    I wonder if you would have less trouble if your wife’s name was Clancy Truman…

    My favorite cases of medical privacy are when the doctor figures out that the legal father of a child cannot possibly be the biological father of the child. Under current regulations, the legal father can only be told this little nugget after a paternity test.

  2. Peter says:

    In fact, I’d read articles about collection agencies telling neighbors and others about the debt in order to shame them into paying.

    That’s illegal under federal law, although collection agencies don’t always comply.

  3. trumwill says:

    Peter, seems like it ought to be illegal. Maybe the context in which I’ve heard it is “though it’s illegal, many collectors…”

  4. trumwill says:

    Mike, in both cases, they didn’t seem to doubt that I was the spouse. They just said it was irrelevant.

    As for whether or not they would shred the check, I don’t know. I did have a former apartment company that refused to cash checks unless they were written by my roommate even though both names were on the lease. This was the cause of a couple of eviction notices, in fact. even with the room number on the check, they would set it aside or shred it.

    I cannot say say with certainty that was the case with the Cascadian power company, though. It might have been that I couldn’t do it over the phone and for some reason sending in a check wasn’t a good option (like it was last-minute or something?) It’s been a while, but they were not interested in taking my money.

  5. trumwill says:

    Regarding the paternity fraud, the reason for that is ostensibly so that a woman will not feel that she has to lie to the doctor about paternity when it may be relevant to the health of the child. However, it seems to me that if we’re going to declare paternity to be important to the health of the child, paternity tests should be run as a matter of course. This is not a subject where my views are remarkably female-friendly.

  6. PeterW says:

    “However, it seems to me that if we’re going to declare paternity to be important to the health of the child, paternity tests should be run as a matter of course.”

    I’m not sure I follow the logic here. Can you restate it more clearly? I see the counterargument as more that the possibility of being found out might dissuade women from going to the doctor.

  7. trumwill says:

    Restate: the main reason, as I understand it, for the paternity of the child to be kept from the non-father is that it would prevent women from giving an accurate family medical history for the child. Therefore, so that mothers will be more forthcoming about such matters, confidentiality is assured.

    However, if we’re so concerned about getting an accurate family history, it seems to me that we ought to be testing for paternity as a matter of course (neonatally) rather than relying on the mother’s say-so that the designated father is the biological father. For a variety of reasons, I believe that this should be done sooner rather than later.

    It could well be that mine is a bad idea and I am being affected by a visceral objection to the notion that paternity is her secret to keep if she so chooses.

  8. Maria says:

    As long as spouses are responsible for each others’ debts, I think it is pretty important to allow access to each other’s financial information, including bills.

  9. SFG says:

    “This is not a subject where my views are remarkably female-friendly.”

    Sometimes there are conflicting interests. Management wants low wages, labor wants high ones.

    Of course you could wait until the child gets born and do a cheek swab, but then you’re legally stuck paying for it, whereas if you knew it wasn’t yours in the womb you could pressure her to abort. (You wouldn’t do this, of course, but other people might.)

    Personally I think men need our own movement, but it never seems to get off the ground.

  10. trumwill says:

    Of course you could wait until the child gets born and do a cheek swab, but then you’re legally stuck paying for it, whereas if you knew it wasn’t yours in the womb you could pressure her to abort. (You wouldn’t do this, of course, but other people might.)

    Determining prior to birth requires an invasive procedure that, unless medically indicated, most doctors are not willing to do solely for that purpose.

    It’s something that has come up, more than once, in Clancy’s practice.

    Men don’t have a movement because there isn’t the solidarity because we dominate positions of power. The good news is that things do start getting addressed even without male solidarity. Not as fast as some of us like, of course, but the same can be said of women’s issues in the minds of feminists.

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