'It's like undressing women in public'
Age, race and previous pregnancies to be listed on website
Abortion rights groups file suit against 'intimidating' law
By Chris McGreal
WASHINGTON — Women seeking abortions in Oklahoma are to be forced to reveal an array of personal information, such as the state of their relationships, how many children they have and their race, which will be posted on an official website.
Abortion rights groups say the new law is intended to intimidate women because, although it does not require them to reveal their names, other information to be made public will sometimes be enough to identify them.
The move, which takes effect on 1 November, comes after a judge struck down a law that would have forced women to undergo an ultrasound and to listen to a doctor's description of the embryo or foetus before a termination.
Abortion rights groups have filed a lawsuit to try to block the new law, which requires women seeking abortions to provide doctors with answers to 34 questions including their age, marital status and education levels, as well as the number of previous pregnancies and abortions. Women are required to reveal their relationship with the father, the reason for the abortion and the area where the abortion was performed.
Doctors are obliged to pass the information on to the Oklahoma health department, which will post it on a public website.
Jennifer Mondino, a lawyer for the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights, said the reporting requirements were intended to "make women more nervous about going to [abortion] doctors".
"The intent of this law is to further restrict access to abortions in Oklahoma," she said. "There are a number of states that have a reporting requirement but not as broad and detailed as in Oklahoma. It's very unusual to consider putting such detail about patients on a website."
"A friend said it best: It's like undressing women in public, exposing their most personal issues on the Internet," said Lora Joyce Davis, one of the plaintiffs working with the Center for Reproductive Rights to fight the law.
Oklahoma was a state with a small population, Mondino said, and "questions about race, number of children, other details can be used to identify a patient. There's a trend in Oklahoma, every year putting out new laws intended to restrict women's access to abortions and to make it harder for doctors to provide them," she said.
Doctors face prosecution and loss of their medical licences for failing to provide the state with the required information. Mondino said that would make doctors hesitant to perform terminations for fear of unintentionally falling foul of the law. "Anti-choice advocates in other states watch and see what happens in Oklahoma. Oklahoma has become a leader in this," she said.
Two years ago, Oklahoma passed a law barring public funds from being used for abortions with the exception of rape or incest. The effect has been to prevent virtually all hospitals in the state from carrying out terminations because they are unable to prove that some part of the procedure has not been subsidised by public money.
Many hospitals had in any case already stopped terminations under pressure from politicians and intimidation by anti-abortion groups. About 96% of the state's counties have no abortion provider and most women seeking terminations have to travel.
Last month a judge struck down a state law requiring a doctor about to perform an abortion to carry out an ultrasound with the screen positioned in front of the mother and to then describe the developing limbs and organs of the foetus. The woman could not be forced to look at the screen but would have no choice but to listen to the doctor's description.
The law required that the ultrasound be carried out vaginally if the pregnancy was in its early stages in order to get a clear picture. Rape victims were not exempted.
The sponsor of that law, the Republican state senator Todd Lamb, said it was intended to give the mother "as much information as possible about that baby" because it might grow up to win the Nobel prize.
The legislation was successfully challenged because the Oklahoma state constitution requires laws to address only one subject at a time. The ultrasound legislation also restricted use of the morning-after pill. The attorney general is appealing against the ruling.
Lamb is also behind the latest law, which opponents are challenging on similar grounds. About 10% of pregnancies in Oklahoma end in induced abortions.
October 18, 2009 — Return to cover.