Oklahoma Women Dodge Legislative Bullet
On Friday, an Oklahoma judge declared unconstitutional a conservative piece of abortion legislation. But the fight’s not over yet.
On Friday an Oklahoma judge declared a controversial law unconstitutional that would have enacted a host of new abortion regulations, including one mandating that detailed demographic and personal information about women seeking abortions be posted online. Though pro-choice activists are applauding the decision, it was not indicative of a dismissal of the regulations themselves. Instead, the judge knocked down the law due to the fact that it violated Oklahoma’s "single-subject" rule, which states that each law can only cover one subject.
The law, which was initially scheduled to go into effect on Nov. 1, 2009, would have required a woman seeking an abortion to fill out a 10-page questionnaire asking everything from her age and marital status to the date of the abortion to the county in which it took place. That information would then be posted on the state’s Department of Health website. Proponents of the law say that names would not have accompanied the statistics. But opponents say the law was a scare tactic that infringed on women’s privacy, and that people in small towns in Oklahoma could easily draw conclusions about identities from even seemingly anonymous information.
In September, the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights brought a lawsuit on behalf of former Oklahoma state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, an Oklahoma City Democrat, and Lora Joyce Davis, a resident of Shawnee, Okla., on the grounds that the legislation violated the Constitution by violating the single-subject rule, banning abortion for means of sex selection and requiring patients to give personal data.
Published reports say the Oklahoma Department of Health would have spent approximately $250,000 each year to carry out the legislation. Before the law went into effect, an Oklahoma judge granted a restraining order against it. It was extended again in December until Friday’s ruling.
“We are very pleased with [Friday]’s ruling,” Jennifer Mondino, the lawyer for the Center who handled the case, said after the ruling. “The government has no business running a grand inquisition into the private lives of Oklahoma women and wasting a quarter of a million dollars of tax payers’ money in the process.”
A spokeswoman for the bill’s co-author, Oklahoma state Senator Todd Lamb (R-Edmond), said Lamb was not available to comment, and his House of Representatives counterpart, Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Tulsa), could not be reached. But Lamb and other lawmakers have already re-filed legislation to address the judge’s ruling, breaking down the law deemed unconstitutional into individual bills.
Oklahoma wasn’t the only state attempting to legally require information about abortion procedures to be submitted to the government. In fact, 46 states currently require hospitals, doctors, and abortion providers to submit abortion information of some kind to the government, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization tracking reproductive data. In addition, for the last three decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has partnered with states to gather data. What made the law and any future law so controversial is that the information would be posted online.
Cait Thompson, a 2009 graduate of Oklahoma State University and a founding member of Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice, says that while some may think the law is useful to gain information, her group does not believe that was the true intent of the law. “We believe that it was set in place to scare women, discourage them and complicate the already complicated abortion process itself,” she says. “While, technically, it would be very hard to identify where a woman might live, therefore subjecting her to ridicule, it’s a matter of privacy. Period.” Thompson adds that no other medical records are published in the same way.
Thompson credits the work of “wonderful lawyers” for Friday’s decision, not the state’s concern for its women. "The Oklahoma government is obviously not listening to the constituents who need these procedures, or might need them at some time in their life," she says.
Eric Scheidler, executive director for the Pro-Life Action League, says a law the one that was overturned on Friday would help lawmakers get to the bottom of abortions. “We see a lot of emphasis on being harmed, or rape and incest,” he says. “So often that’s pointed to [as reasons for abortion], but we don’t have reasons on why. [With this law] we can know with greater accuracy why women make the choice.”
Scheidler says the argument that women will be identified by the posted information is absurd. “There’s no town in America that one women is the only one of child-bearing age,” he says. “I think it’s nothing but a smoke screen.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights anticipated such an argument and made a strategic decision to pursue the lawsuit based on the single-subject rule, Mondino says. Ultimately, however, the Center’s opposition to the legislation is about the privacy of women. “Oklahoma has been functioning as a hotbed of anti-choice laws,” Mondino says. “If the law is permitted, other states may try to copy it.”
Kristi Eaton is a staff writer for Campus Progress. She graduated from Arizone State University in 2008.