Oklahoma judge temporarily halts new abortion law

BY NOLAN CLAY Modified: May 4, 2010 at 5:36 am •  Published: May 4, 2010
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The state has agreed not to enforce a new abortion law — criticized as one of the nation’s most restrictive — until a judge rules on a legal challenge.

Oklahoma County District Judge Noma Gurich signed the agreement Monday afternoon. Her action temporarily halts enforcement of the law requiring pregnant women to undergo ultrasounds right before abortions.

Legislative leaders said the development was expected.

A Tulsa medical clinic and a Norman doctor are challenging the law on constitutional grounds. The law was in effect for less than a week.

The law requires an abortion provider to perform an ultrasound on a pregnant woman at least an hour before the procedure so she can see the images of the fetus. The woman can avert her eyes if she wants.

The doctor or certified technician also must describe what is being shown, including whether the heart of the fetus or embryo is beating. Legislators required the ultrasound "in order for the woman to make an informed decision.”

"It’s part of the informed consent before she makes an irrevocable decision,” said the law’s author, Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Lindsay. "Why wouldn’t we allow her all that information?”

The law went into effect April 27 after the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto. Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, said the law had numerous flaws including that it did not exempt rape and incest victims. "It would be unconscionable to subject rape and incest victims to such treatment,” he said.

The Reproductive Services clinic in Tulsa and the Norman doctor, Larry Burns, are represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York organization. Center attorneys have successfully challenged two other Oklahoma abortion laws.

"Politicians have no business making medical decisions,” one center attorney, Stephanie Toti, said last week.

Defending the lawsuit is Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s office. One of his assistants signed the agreement approved by the judge.


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Future of law remains unclear

A University of Oklahoma expert on the U.S. constitution said a new abortion law might be thrown out.

"For over three decades, the (U.S.) Supreme Court has recognized the constitutional right of a woman to choose whether to terminate her pregnancy,” said Joseph Thai, a law professor who graduated from Harvard and clerked for two Supreme Court justices.

"According to the Court, the right derives from the ‘liberty’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” he told The Oklahoman.

"States may not pass laws that impose an ‘undue burden’ on the right to an abortion by erecting a substantial obstacle to its exercise. The question here is whether the law’s requirements go beyond making a woman more informed to chilling her choice. This area of constitutional law is highly contentious and uncertain ... this measure pushes the envelope of ‘informed consent’ laws. At best, it is unclear whether the measure will survive in court.”

FROM STAFF REPORTS

Background

A different judge last August struck down a 2008 abortion law requiring ultrasounds at least an hour before the procedure.

Oklahoma County District Judge Vicki Robertson ruled the law unconstitutional because it contained other restrictions dealing with abortions. She found it violated a requirement in the Oklahoma Constitution that legislation deal with a single subject.

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