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Online Posting of Women's Abortion Information Challenged in Oklahoma

Wayne Drash
Oklahoma County District Court Judge Daniel Owens will hear arguments Friday afternoon on a temporary injunction to keep the law from going into effect and a separate motion to dismiss the law altogether.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Daniel Owens will hear arguments Friday afternoon on a temporary injunction to keep the law from going into effect and a separate motion to dismiss the law altogether. (CNN photo: Wayne Drash)

OKLAHOMA - A judge could determine Friday whether to allow an Oklahoma law to go forward that will post information online about women who get abortions in the state -- an act critics say would be harassment and an invasion of privacy.

"We don't feel that the government should be able to run a grand inquisition into women's private lives," says Jennifer Mondino, an attorney challenging the law on behalf of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

State Sen. Todd Lamb helped draft the abortion legislation and describes it as "a common sense measure with bipartisan support." He says the left has tried to skew the law's intent through a campaign of misinformation.

"We're not trying to embarrass anybody, hurt anybody or make anybody's identities known. That's not the purpose of the legislation," the Republican lawmaker says.

"We want to collect hard data that can be a useful tool in helping prevent future unwanted pregnancies."

The law requires doctors to fill out a 10-page questionnaire for every abortion performed, including asking the woman about her age, marital status, race and years of education.

One section of the "Individual Abortion Form" says the woman must state her reason for seeking an abortion and answer this checklist. "Having a baby:

• Would dramatically change the life of the mother;
• Would interfere with the education of the mother;
• Would interfere with the job/employment/career of the mother."

A Democratic former state legislator calls the law "abusive and invasive."

"Nosy neighbors with some effort could identify or, even worse, misidentify these women who answer these questions," says former state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, one of two Oklahoma residents on whose behalf the Center for Reproductive Rights brought the lawsuit against the measure.

Lamb, who is running for lieutenant governor, rejects that notion. How can it violate women's privacy, Lamb says, if their identity is kept confidential?

The measure specifies women's identities will be protected. "Nothing in the Individual Abortion Form shall contain the name, address or information specifically identifying any patient," it says.

"Nobody's identity will be made known," Lamb says.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Daniel Owens will hear arguments Friday afternoon on a temporary injunction to keep the law from going into effect and a separate motion to dismiss the law altogether.

Troy Newman, the head of the Kansas-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, says the law is "designed so that the pregnant mother can have as much information as technology and medicine will allow."

"Naturally, the abortion industry wants to block this, because they know the more information the mom has, the less likely she is to abort her baby," Newman says.

The Center for Reproductive Rights argues that the measure is unconstitutional and in violation of the state's "single subject rule" because it covers different aspects of abortion. The law also bars women from seeking abortions solely because of the sex of the fetus, with fines up to $100,000 for doctors who "knowingly violate" it.


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"We are very committed from keeping the law from going into effect," Mondino says. "The law represents a very serious invasion of women's privacy interests."

Lamb says he believes the law will stand. "None of the bill is being challenged on the merits of the legislation," he says.

Abortion rights supporters are extremely concerned about the intrusiveness of the questions, and fear that identities of women could be compromised, especially in small communities.

"It requires doctors to ask and submit answers to at least 37 intensely personal questions. There are details in those questions about rape, incest, abuse, relationship problems and emotional health," Stapleton says. "I think women can be identified."

According to state estimates, the Oklahoma State Department of Health will spend roughly $250,000 a year to carry out the law.

"To spend a quarter of a million dollars on this is absolutely ridiculous," Stapleton says, adding, "Oh goodness, all the publicity over this has severely blighted the image of Oklahoma."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1969 drafted criteria for vital statistics around abortion to look at infant and maternal mortality in an effort to make the procedure safer.

The CDC's guidelines have long been considered the standard and "all the states pretty much follow that," says Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state abortion legislation for the Guttmacher Institute.

"You compare the law in Oklahoma to the CDC standard, and you see the law in Oklahoma goes far beyond what has been considered appropriate for vital statistics purposes," Nash says.

The law's co-sponsor, Lamb, says legislators drafted the measure using portions of a Guttmacher study. "Some of this was gleaned from the Guttmacher Institute," he says. "It's not Draconian."

"If we collect this evidence, we can better treat, we can better counsel, we can better provide alternatives," Lamb says.

Why draft the legislation?

"I'm pro-life," he says. "Oklahoma is a conservative state. We are a pro-life state, and I believe it's important public policy to stand on the side of sanctity of life."

Stapleton, who served in the state House of Representatives from 1986 to 1996, says the law is another example of the GOP "onslaught" in recent years in Oklahoma, with lawmakers taking aim at abortion.

"They're trying to do away with abortions completely," she says. "They can't because of Roe v. Wade. But they're finding ways around Roe v Wade."

If the law does go forward, the state Department of Health is to have the Web site up and running by March 1, 2011. Doctors are to begin submitting completed questionnaires 30 days later.

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