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Strict Oklahoma abortion laws spark court battles

By The Associated Press Published: October 23, 2009
Two new laws being challenged in the Oklahoma courts would give the state some of the strictest abortion laws in the country by forcing women to answer questions about race and their relationships, and to listen to a doctor talk them through an ultrasound.

Legal challenges to the laws are in their early stages, but observers say the trajectory of cases could mirror that of the partial-birth abortion debate, which went through Nebraska courts and was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court before Congress made it a federal law that was upheld in 2007.

“That's an apt comparison,” said Joseph Thai, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in constitutional law and the Supreme Court. “So, expect these Oklahoma laws and the ensuing court decisions to be the first rather than last word on how far a state may go with respect to compulsory procedures and reporting requirements.”

Opponents of the laws say they were drafted to make a woman's already difficult decision to have an abortion even more difficult.

“Nobody undertakes this kind of decision lightly to begin with,” said Anita Fream, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma. “To turn around and, once you've made this decision, find out the legislators have imposed these additional restrictions, it's really quite problematic. It often makes a difficult decision even more painful.”

One law would require women to fill out a lengthy survey that asks, among other things, about their race, education and reason for seeking an abortion. It asks women whether they're having relationship problems, whether they can't afford to raise a child or whether having a baby would dramatically change their lives.

Another section requires doctors to provide detailed information about complications that arise as a result of the procedure. The Health Department ultimately would compile the information into a statistical report and post it on its Web site.

“It is particularly Draconian, abusive, intimidating,” said former Democratic state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the reporting requirements. “Those are totally intimidating, totally personal questions, and it's nobody's business.”

But supporters say the surveys will prove valuable to understanding why women seek abortions, and that women need to be provided with as much knowledge as possible before making an irrevocable decision.

“Do they feel they have no other choice? Is it financial? What are the reasons that lead up to that very desperate choice of a woman?” said Republican state Rep. Pam Peterson, who played a key role in drafting both laws.

Republican state Rep. Dan Sullivan, who helped draft the questionnaire bill, said lawmakers are simply seeking as much information as possible to help them find ways to reduce the number of abortions in Oklahoma.

“These are tragic situations for people, and we're not trying to compound anyone's emotional state,” said Sullivan, of Tulsa.

He said the identities of the women who filled out the questionnaires would be kept private, because the forms don't ask for personally identifiable information and the Health Department has been directed to ensure personal information doesn't make it onto the Web site.

Opponents of the laws, including the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, have sued to stop them from taking effect, arguing that both were rolled into larger bills, violating a state constitutional provision requiring bills pertain to a single subject.

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