Abortion Law Akin to 'Undressing Women'

Lawsuit challenges law that would post personal abortion details on Web site.

October 15, 2009, 3:28 PM

Oct. 15, 2009— -- Two women are challenging an Oklahoma law that will require the state to create a Web site where any woman who has an abortion will have to provide intimate details about her choice -- including her relationships, financial situation and even her motivation for seeking the abortion.

"A friend said it best: It's like undressing women in public, exposing their most personal issues on the Internet," said Lora Joyce Davis, one of the plaintiffs working with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights to fight the law, which goes into effect Nov. 1.

Called the Statistical Reporting of Abortions Act, the law requires all doctors to file information on a woman's age, marital status, education level, number of previous pregnancies, cost and type of abortion, as well as the mother's relationship to the father, with the Oklahoma Department of Health.

Though it does not ask for names, the form poses 37 questions detailing a woman's personal situation. Critics say the first eight questions alone could easily lead to the identification of a woman who lives in one of the state's many small communities.

"This law asks for so much information, and they are going to put it on the Internet for public scorn," said Davis. "Women who have abortions are considered murderers by many people, and you are going to put the name of a town of 200 and the fact that the girl is 17 and it's her first pregnancy and she in the 10th grade. People are going to know who it is."

Many questions fish for more, critics say. "Was there an infant born alive as a result of the abortion?" and "Was the abortion performed within the use of any public institution?"

Doctors who fail to provide information would face criminal sanctions and loss of their medical license.

While the litigants object to the invasion of privacy, their lawsuit challenges the law on more technical grounds. It charges that House Bill 1595 covers more than one subject and therefore violates the state constitution.

The plaintiffs hope to delay implementation of the law and the planned March 1, 2010, launch of the Web site.

Last month, the organization used the same argument to successfully strike down a 2008 law that would have required women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound within an hour of the proceedings and require doctors to describe the picture to their patients in great detail -- down to the numbers of finger and toes.

In addition to mandating the new Web site for abortion-related demographics, the legislation also redefines various abortion terms, bans sex-selective abortion and creates other new reporting requirements.

Abortion Law 'Protects Sanctity of Life'

The new law was sponsored by two anti-abortion rights Republicans, Sen. Todd Lamb, of Edmond, and Rep. Dan Sullivan, of Tulsa.

"This legislation is essential in protecting the sanctity of life," said Lamb when the bill was enacted last April. "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."

Lamb, who is running for lieutenant governor, said he is confident the law will be upheld, calling it "commonsense legislation" that passed with bipartisan support.

"To say these [questions] are onerous, we are talking about human life, and to ask some questions and add two pages of forms to the already multiple pages you are filling out for the medical profession, for an innocent child, that's not much to ask," Lamb told ABCNews.com.

But Davis, and co-plaintiff Wanda Jo Stapleton, a former Democratic state representative from Oklahoma City, argue that the law is not only ineffective but is also "an unlawful expenditure of public funds."

The Web site, they say, will cost taxpayers $281,285 the first year and $256,285 every subsequent year.

Davis said money spent on women in "personal crisis" could be better spent addressing Oklahoma's high teen pregnancy rate -- which is the sixth highest in the nation, according to a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I always cared about civil rights, and it seems in Oklahoma, politicians keep trying to do something on the abortion issue to make them look like they are pro-life," said Davis. a 66-year-old great-grandmother from Shawnee.

"It's disingenuous to keep passing laws that make it harder and harder for people seeking abortion for personal reasons and to keep lowering funding for support of teens who are pregnant."

"People are more likely to choose abortion if there is not hope for taking care of the child," she told ABCNews.com.

Oklahoma allows abortions to be performed up to 22 weeks. There are only three doctors in the state who are known to perform abortions, and many have become "vilified in the public eye," according to Jennifer Mondino, staff attorney for the U.S. legal program for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

"I think the intent is to further stigmatize doctors who provide abortions and make it more difficult for women to access reproductive health services," said Mondino.

"In talking to abortion providers, they have been telling us that they are seeing a serious upswing in harassment and protest activity since the beginning of the year," she told ABCNews.com.

In 2007, more than 6,300 abortions were performed in Oklahoma, down slightly from the previous year and reflecting a trend nationwide, according to Planned Parenthood, an organization that supports abortion rights.

"Oklahoma women should be terrified of this onerous law," said Keri Parks, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma. "It basically turns an already difficult and personal decision into a situation which may put a woman's private and protected health information at risk of inadvertent disclosure.

"Our reproductive rights are challenged yearly in the Oklahoma legislature, and our state seems to have become a testing ground for oppressive restrictions on abortion access," she told ABCNews.com.

The number of abortion restrictions is increasing nationwide, according to Planned Parenthood. During the 2009 state legislative session alone, 23 bills were introduced in Texas and 18 were introduced in Mississippi.

But supporters say the law is not about restricting access to abortion but helping the state gather important information.

"I don't think [the bill] has anything to do with restrictions or roadblocks," said David Dunn, director of research for the Oklahoma Family Policy Council, which opposes abortion.

"The government knows what the situation is and isn't operating in the dark," said Dunn, who dismissed complaints that the new Web site might reveal confidential information.

"We might have a situation in some small town, but I don't know why it's a big deal if abortion is legal and there is nothing wrong, why would people be ashamed to have an abortion?" he asked.

Recording statistical data on abortions is nothing new. Currently 46 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory or voluntary reporting, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which promotes sexual and reproductive health worldwide.

Since 1969, when abortion was legal in only a handful of states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has gathered and released aggregate data provided by state health departments to track maternal morbidity and mortality.

"Generally, the requirements have been benign," said Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher public policy associate. "The forms go to the health department and they put them under lock and key and send the data to the CDC."

But over time, as the abortion debate has heated up, states have added "twists and turns" to those requirements, asking for details on minors and fathers of the fetus, according to Nash.

"They are becoming more and more intrusive," she told ABCNews.com. "And now comes the Oklahoma law -- it's pretty darn intrusive.

"You basically get into a whole bunch of stuff that goes way far beyond the CDC in its interest in your personal life," she said. "This is very personal, the kind of information you keep very close and might not even share with a close family member."

The law also places a burden on abortion providers, who Nash said are "really being put between a rock and a hard place."

"They want to protect themselves, and their patients from troubling and upsetting questions and at the same time there are strong penalties," she said.

As for women seeking abortion, this week's Guttmacher report says that the abortion rate is roughly equal in countries where it is legal and those where it is highly restricted.

"Honestly," said Nash. "It seems to be that women surmount all sorts of barriers to abortion waiting periods. They travel long distances to get child care because they know what they need to do. Women still get abortions and I think this is just adding to their burden."

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