Judge extends order blocking Oklahoma law requiring women to have ultrasounds before abortions

By Tim Talley, AP
Monday, July 19, 2010

Judge extends order blocking Okla. abortion law

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma judge granted an injunction Monday blocking enforcement of a state law that would require women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus.

Oklahoma County District Judge Noma Gurich set a pretrial hearing for Jan. 21 and directed that the state not enforce the law, which was passed by legislators this year. A temporary restraining order against the law had been in effect since May.

Gurich handed down the ruling following a brief hearing attended by more than 50 people including about two dozen women in pink tops who are members or supporters of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, a grass-roots organization that opposes the law and other anti-abortion measures adopted by state lawmakers in recent years.

“This is really government out of control,” said Martha Skeeters of Norman, president of the coalition. “It’s abusive of women. The Legislature is voting to abuse women.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights in New York challenged the law on behalf of Nova Health Systems, operator of Reproductive Services of Tulsa, and Dr. Larry Burns, who the group said provides abortions in Norman.

The group has said the ultrasound law is the strictest such requirement in the country and has asked Gurich to declare it unconstitutional, arguing in court filings that women could be forced to hear information that might not be relevant to their medical care.

“Over a woman’s objection she must be shown an ultrasound image,” Stephanie Toti, an attorney for the abortion rights group, said during oral arguments on its request for an injunction. Toti said the ultrasound requirement suggests that “women are inherently incapable of caring for themselves.”

She also said the law is vague concerning what abortion providers are required to say about an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion and violates the free speech rights of providers by forcing them to describe the fetus’ dimensions, age and whether a heartbeat, limbs and organs are present.

Special Assistant Attorney General Teresa Collett, a University of St. Thomas Law School professor retained to defend the statute by the Attorney General’s Office, said Nova Health Systems already routinely performs ultrasound examinations on women seeking an abortion and that the law merely requires that the information be shared with the patient.

“This is nothing more than an informed consent law,” Collett said. She said it does not violate the free speech rights of providers but provides women with information they need to decide whether to proceed with an abortion.

Tony Lauinger, state chairman of Oklahomans for Life and vice president of the National Right to Life Committee, said he was disappointed that enforcement of the statute will be further delayed.

“We would like to see the law implemented as soon as possible,” Lauinger said. “This is information that pregnant women badly need.”

Last spring, Oklahoma legislators passed eight laws to restrict abortions. Gov. Brad Henry signed four and vetoed four — but the Legislature overrode three. The remaining veto that stood would have restricted insurance companies from providing coverage for elective abortions.

Some of the abortion bills passed in 2010 had been included in 2008 and 2009 laws struck down on a technicality in separate court cases: they violated a state requirement that bills deal with only one subject. Legislators unbundled them with the hope of having them pass a court challenge.

Henry said the bills he vetoed, including the ultrasound bill, were likely unconstitutional and would be knocked down by courts.

Toti said her group would likely challenge other Oklahoma abortion laws, including one that requires women and abortion doctors to complete a lengthy questionnaire.

“This is something everybody should be concerned about. It’s a huge waste of taxpayer money,” Skeeters, a women’s and gender studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, said.

Charlie Price, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Collett’s contract calls for her to be paid up to $100,000 to defend the statute.

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