Strict Oklahoma abortion laws spark court battles
Abortion rights supporters have challenged two new Oklahoma laws that would give the state some of the strictest abortion laws in the country by forcing women to answer questions about race and their relationships, and to listen to a doctor talk them through an ultrasound.
Opponents of the laws say they were drafted to make a woman’s already difficult decision to have an abortion even more difficult. But supporters say the surveys will prove valuable to understanding why women seek abortions, and that women need to be provided with as much knowledge as possible before making an irrevocable decision.
“Do they feel they have no other choice? Is it financial? What are the reasons that lead up to that very desperate choice of a woman?” said Republican state Rep. Pam Peterson, who played a key role in drafting both laws.
The legal challenges are in their early stages, but observers say the trajectory of cases could mirror that of the partial-birth abortion debate, which went through Nebraska courts and was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court before Congress made it a federal law that was upheld in 2007.
“That’s an apt comparison,” said Joseph Thai, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in constitutional law and the Supreme Court. “So, expect these Oklahoma laws and the ensuing court decisions to be the first rather than last word on how far a state may go with respect to compulsory procedures and reporting requirements.”
Anita Fream, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma said the decision of whether or not to have an abortion is never taken lightly.
“To turn around and, once you’ve made this decision, find out the legislators have imposed these additional restrictions, it’s really quite problematic. It often makes a difficult decision even more painful,” Fream said.
One law would require women to fill out a lengthy survey that asks, among other things, about their race, education and reason for seeking an abortion. It asks women whether they’re having relationship problems, whether they can’t afford to raise a child or whether having a baby would dramatically change their lives.
Another section requires doctors to provide detailed information about complications that arise as a result of the procedure. The Health Department ultimately would compile the information into a statistical report and post it on its Web site.
“It is particularly Draconian, abusive, intimidating,” said former Democratic state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the reporting requirements. “Those are totally intimidating, totally personal questions, and it’s nobody’s business.”
Republican state Rep. Dan Sullivan, who helped draft the questionnaire bill, said lawmakers are simply seeking as much information as possible to help them find ways to reduce the number of abortions in Oklahoma.
“These are tragic situations for people, and we’re not trying to compound anyone’s emotional state,” said Sullivan, of Tulsa.
He said the identities of the women who filled out the questionnaires would be kept private, because the forms don’t ask for personally identifiable information and the Health Department has been directed to ensure personal information doesn’t make it onto the Web site.
Opponents of the laws, including the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, have sued to stop them from taking effect, arguing that both were rolled into larger bills, violating a state constitutional provision requiring bills pertain to a single subject. A district court judge issued a temporary order this week preventing the questionnaire law from taking effect.
Another district court judge overturned the other law, which would require women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound and to have a doctor talk them through what they’re seeing. The law would require a doctor to use a vaginal transducer in the earliest stages of pregnancy, since that provides the clearest image when the fetus is small. The method is more invasive than the abdominal ultrasounds most pregnant women undergo.
The state has appealed that decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In the meantime, lawmakers who backed the abortion laws have said they’d likely resubmit them as separate measures during the next legislative session.
While most states have abortion reporting requirements, Oklahoma’s laws in both areas are the most far-reaching in the nation, said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy analyst with the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights group focused on sexual and reproductive health research.
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi require ultrasounds in all abortion cases, and Arizona and Florida require them after the first trimester. But no other states require doctors to describe the image to women and mandate that a vaginal ultrasound be used in certain cases, Nash said.
Tony Lauinger, chairman of the anti-abortion group Oklahomans for Life, said the ultrasound law helps ensure women are fully aware of how developed the fetus is.
According to the state Department of Health, the number of annual abortions performed in Oklahoma has stayed relatively steady in recent years, with 6,322 in 2005, 6,595 in 2006 and 6,319 in 2007, the most recent year for which data was available.