Oklahoma Abortion Law: No Exceptions, Even Rape

Women seeking abortion will be forced to see fetal image, get unwanted speech.

April 29, 2010, 9:20 AM

April 29, 2010— -- From the time she was 15 and repeatedly over the course of two years, Joelle Casteix -- a vulnerable teen with an alcoholic mother -- was sexually abused by her California high school music teacher.

At 17, when Casteix discovered she was pregnant with her assailant's child, she sought an abortion, one that she says was emotionally painful, but she doesn't regret.

"For the first time in my life, I did something to take care of myself," she said. "I needed to ensure my safety and make sure he wouldn't hurt me. For me it was an act of survival."

At the abortion clinic, Casteix was given comfort and counseling then underwent a standard sonogram to determine the gestational age of the fetus. Sheturned her eyes away from the screen.

But under a new law in Oklahoma, women like Casteix, who have been sexually assaulted, will be forced to undergo a second trauma. The law requires them to undergo a sonogram, and depending on the state of pregnancy, it could be a transvaginal one, which involves insertion of a wand.

The doctor must then turn the screen towards her and describe fetal dimensions and details like the number of fingers and toes and heart activity.

There are no exemptions for victims of rape and incest.

"The law takes no account of the trauma of the victim," said Casteix. "I just can't imagine what that would have done to me. It upsets me just thinking about being in that position. If you are the victim of a violent crime, it's absolutely devastating."

The Oklahoma law was enacted immediately on Tuesday after both the state's Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to override Democrat Gov. Brad Henry's veto of two anti-abortion bills.

Already, one of the three abortion clinics in Oklahoma is reporting that women are so upset about the sonogram procedure, they are leaving the clinic crying.

"Not one patient would look at the screen and they all closed their eyes or turned their heads," said Linda Meek, director at Reproductive Services in Tulsa, which does 3,000 abortions a year.

"But it's hard to turn your ears off," she said. "Several of the patients were in tears afterwards. No one changed their mind."

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights has filed a legal challenge to the controversial law, arguing it violates both the patient's and doctor's freedom of speech and intrudes upon a patient's privacy in her relationship with her doctor.

Oklahoma Abortion Law 'Manipulates' Women

The Oklahoma legislature approved a second law that prohibits women from seeking damages if a physician withholds information or provides inaccurate information about a pregnancy.

"This is really a measure aimed at manipulating women," said Stephanie Toti, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said of the two laws. "On the one hand, abortion providers are required to make women go through an unnecessary procedure and have an image thrust in their line of sight."

"At the same time, doctors are authorized to withhold information from women and to control the flow of that information to pregnant women," she said. "It's not about women making an informed decision, it's about trying to coerce a woman to make the decision the state wants to make."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nova Health Systems, which operates the Tulsa clinic and Dr. Larry Burns, who provides abortions in Norman. It seeks a temporary restraining order to immediately block enforcement of the statute and an expedited hearing on the group's request for an injunction.

Casteix, who is now 39 and married with a three-year-old, said the Oklahoma law would have "pushed me over the edge."

"I was fragile enough at the time as a victim of sex abuse," she said. "I had horrible guilt and thought it was my fault. I wanted to die."

The law is among the nation's strictest measures against abortion and one of 14 other states that have sonogram requirements, according to the Guttmacher Institute. None are as restrictive as Oklahoma's, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Some states require the procedure but do not force the patient to look at the image or hear a speech.

Just this spring an Oklahoma County court overturned another anti-abortion bill that would have created a Web site that gathered personal information on women seeking an abortion. It was struck down on grounds that it violated the state constitution.

Lawmakers Want Abortion Curtailed

State Sen. Todd Lamb, a Republican who supported the new laws, said fellow lawmakers hoped it would curtail abortions in the state.

"Republicans have championed the sanctity of life for decades, and today we once again saw our efforts come to fruition with bipartisan support behind these critical measures," he said in a prepared statement.

"As a former Secret Service agent, I had a calling to protect people and their rights," he said. "Our pro-life legislation protects not only the unborn child, but the mother as well, allowing her to have informed consent prior to an abortion."

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Lisa Johnson-Billy, said women already undergo ultrasounds when seeking an abortion. Under the new law, women would not be forced to look at the screen, she said.

"The abortion provider needs to see the position of the baby and make sure she's pregnant and see the gestational age of the infant," said Johnson-Billy.

"Unfortunately in Oklahoma, we have encountered a lot of women who, by the time the ultrasound is provided, they were already asleep and didn't know," she said. "The real purpose is to give patients all the information that is relevant before they make a life-altering decision."

Johnson-Billy said the information is "empowering" for women. "We are all sympathetic with victims of rape," she said, but research shows "those seeking abortions is extremely low."

The Oklahoma Medical Association (OMA) did not support the bill.

"Generally we don't take a position on abortion," said OMA spokesman Wes Glensman. "We are opposed to any override of medical judgment of treating physicians."

But abortion clinic director Meek said the law was "outrageous," particularly for traumatized rape and incest survivors.

"It's very painful for them," she said. "They are already a victim...Forcing women against their will causes more pain and distress."

Under Oklahoma law, they must be read a typewritten script over the phone 24 hours prior to the procedure, one that describes complications and risks and the gestational age.

The new law is "repetitive," she said.

"The women who walk through our doors here have thought long and hard and have considered all their options," said Meek. "They have thought it through. It's not an easy decision and they don't make it on the spur of the moment."

'People think we drag someone off the street and bring them in to have an abortion," she said. "That's not the way it is. When a patient is unsure, we won't do it and we encourage them to go home and think it over."

As for Joelle Casteix, she came to terms with both her molestation and her abortion after counseling and winning a $1.6 million lawsuit against the Catholic diocese. She now volunteers for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Her abuser, who was not a priest, but a lay person, still teaches music at a college in Michigan.

"It took me until my late 20s and 30s until I was able to understand it was not my fault," she said. "I had to save myself and it was my right under the law. I have guilt, but I don't have regret."