By Susan Elan
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Enforcement of an Oklahoma law that will publicize an unprecedented amount of personal information about women who undergo abortions has been delayed by at least one month, to Dec. 4, as part of a legal challenge.
(WOMENSENEWS)--An Oklahoma law mandating that detailed information about patients who have abortions be published on a state Web site was blocked by legal action on Monday.
The law was scheduled to take effect Nov. 1.
To challenge the state constitutionality of the law, the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Oklahoma women.
The center's spokeswoman Dionne Scott said a temporary restraining order that stops enforcement was granted late Monday by Oklahoma County District Court Judge Twyla Mason Gray so that she could "look further into the case."
The law, House Bill 1595, requires physicians to ask patients, described as "mothers," up to 37 personal questions, including their age, marital status, race, years of education, number of prior pregnancies, reason for the abortion, method of abortion and payment and whether an ultrasound was performed.
Former state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, an Oklahoma City Democrat who brought the lawsuit with Lora Joyce Davis, a resident of Shawnee, Okla., applauded the court granted reprieve.
"This is one of dozens of bills piled on year after year by the Oklahoma legislature to place obstacles in the path of women," Stapleton said on Tuesday. "The bill points a public finger at women and is intended to scare them to death."
Suspense about whether the law could take effect has been building since Oct. 13 when the state court, at the request of the attorney general, postponed an Oct. 30 hearing on the lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court until Dec. 4, which would have allowed the law to take effect with the challenge pending.
Jennifer Mondino, a Center for Reproductive Rights staff attorney, told Women's eNews that delaying the hearing date, which would have allowed the law to be in effect for more than a month, was "very unusual."
Last week, the Center for Reproductive Rights sent a brief to Oklahoma opposing postponement. The legal advocacy group also renewed its request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the law from going into effect.
Charlie Price, a spokesman for state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, said the attorney general's office, which defends challenges to state laws, had asked for more time to respond.
The New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion reporting requirements nationwide, lists 46 states that require hospitals, doctors and facilities that provide abortions to submit confidential reports to the state. But only 15 states require providers to give information about a woman's reason for seeking the procedure.
"The Oklahoma bill takes all of the intrusive information from very personal questions and puts it all in one place," said Elizabeth Nash, who specializes in state policy for the Guttmacher Institute. "It's the most egregious."
Stapleton, a state legislator from 1986 to 1996, charges that the measure violates patient privacy protection that is guaranteed under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. She also says that it violates a woman's federally-protected right to choose without state interference during the first trimester of pregnancy.
"Women in small towns can be identified by nosey neighbors or, equally important, they can be misidentified when the guessing games start," Stapleton said.
The Center for Reproductive Rights isn't fighting the legislation on the issues that trouble Stapleton, however.
Its lawsuit says House Bill 1595 violates the Oklahoma Constitution by covering more than one subject.
The bill also bans abortion based on gender, redefines some abortion-related terms and creates new duties for the state Department of Health.
By focusing on Oklahoma's one-subject constitutional restriction, the Center for Reproductive Rights successfully challenged a 2008 law in Oklahoma that would have required women to submit to an ultrasound and description by their doctor of the fetus prior to an abortion. The state said it will appeal that ruling.
The measures are just the latest round in an "avalanche of anti-choice bills" proposed in Oklahoma since 2005 when "extremist Republicans" took control of the state House, Stapleton said.
Oklahoma state Rep. Dan Sullivan, a Tulsa Republican and co-author of House Bill 1595, told Women's eNews that the law is intended "to find out why people are seeking abortions and see if there is something we can do as a state to have a positive impact." He said there is no way to understand the demand for the procedures without good data.
Dr. Dana Stone, who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology in Oklahoma City, doesn't understand why the state needs to spend money on data collection and posting when the federally-funded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, in Atlanta already does that.
The CDC has collected state-by-state abortion data, which is available online, since 1969.
The cost of the new abortion reporting program for Oklahoma taxpayers is estimated at $281,285 in the first year and $256,285 each year thereafter.
Doctors who perform abortions or treat patients with an illness or injury that may have resulted from an abortion face heavy fines if they fail to report to the state.
"Is this really intended to help women and their health or to make it more difficult to take care of these women?" Stone said.
The bill's Senate co-author Todd Lamb, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, couldn't be reached to answer that question. But press releases he issued after approval of the legislation last spring make his priorities clear.
"This legislation is essential in protecting the sanctity of life," Lamb said. "Too often the life of the unborn is taken for granted and I applaud my colleagues for their bipartisan support of a pro-life measure, despite attempts on the floor to sabotage this issue important to families across our state."
Susan Elan covered politics at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She has also worked as a reporter for an English-language radio station in Paris, France.
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To read Oklahoma House Bill 1595
Then go to "search text of measures" and enter "1595" in the box marked "search 2009-10 House Measures" (it opens as a pdf) http://www.lsb.state.ok.us/
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