Gender

Shocking Law: Doctors Now Allowed to Keep Information About Birth Defects from Women in Order to Stop Abortions

In addition to a law that requires women view ultrasounds before their abortions, Oklahoma now shields doctors who hide information about birth defects from malpractice suits.

Oklahoma is not a hospitable place for a woman seeking to assert her reproductive rights. There are only three licensed abortion providers in the whole state, and local legislators appear fixated on narrowing residents' already-limited abortion options by passing one restrictive, demeaning, and almost certainly unconstitutional law after another.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma state legislature overrode the governor's vetoes on two such bills and made them law. One requires that a woman seeking an abortion must look at her ultrasound -- the screen must be in her line of sight (she has the option of covering her eyes) -- as the health care provider narrates the state of the fetus. The other law prevents a woman from suing her doctor for withholding information about potential birth defects.

Within hours of the new laws' passage, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) went to court to challenge the bills as unconstitutional. Unfortunately, it's not the first time the abortion rights group has taken on the conservative-dominated Oklahoma legislature. In 2008, when these same statutes were passed and made law -- after legislators once again overturned vetoes by Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat -- CRR filed suit and successfully had the measures struck down.

The Supreme Court has called the passage of such anti-choice laws "a continued failure to abide by the Oklahoma constitution." The state's own highest court has called such legislative attempts "a waste of time for the Legislature and the Court, and a waste of taxpayers' money."

The Republican-dominated legislature's antics are growing quite tiresome -- and offensive. Just a week ago, an Oklahoma district court ruled unconstitutional a 2009 law that created a public Web site where doctors would have to publish personal information, including names, about women who had legally terminated their pregnancies in the state.

Keri Parks, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, said this most recent onslaught makes the whole abortion process "more devastating for women who are already making a devastating decision."

Parks believes most of the anti-choice bills being crafted and rammed through the state legislature are part of a concerted effort to win pro-life votes in the upcoming midterm elections. Stephanie Toti, staff attorney for CRR, is sure the motivation is not to protect or promote women's health or to promote informed decision-making by pregnant women.

"The effect of these laws is to manipulate the flow of information about options. It's an attempt to coerce a woman to choose the option that the state thinks is best," Toti says. "These laws threaten women's health by reducing access to safe abortion care. They really humiliate women who are seeking abortion and fail to accord them the dignity that they ought be accorded by law."

The new Oklahoma ultrasound requirement is the most extreme and restrictive of all such anti-choice measures in the country. Currently 21 other states have some sort of ultrasound requirement -- but none of these states requires an abortion provider to place the ultrasound monitor in the patient's line of sight and then make her listen to a description of the fetus. No exceptions are made for rape and incest victims, as the health care provider gives a detailed tour of the fetus' limbs, heart and other organs.

The second new law, which bars women from suing their health care provider for withholding information about potential birth defects, is an affront to the doctor-patient relationship. Gov. Henry, when vetoing the bills, said: "It is unconscionable to grant a physician legal protection to mislead or misinform a pregnant woman in an effort to impose his or her personal beliefs on the patient."

 

The moves in Oklahoma mirror other extremist measures in other states. Earlier this month, Nebraska passed a bill outlawing abortions at 20 weeks, based on the theory that fetuses begin to feel pain at that stage. That state's governor signed that law alongside an outrageous one which requires that women pass a mental health screening before being allowed to terminate a pregnancy. And in Utah, land of plentiful Mormon fertility and dogma, a measure being called the "feticide law" will charge women with murder for arranging an illegal abortion.

CRR's Toti believes this is the result of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Gonzales v. Carhart that "signaled a willingness on the Court's part to weaken protections" to the federal right to an abortion. (Many point to Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement and replacement by ultra-conservative Samuel Alito as the beginning of the shift of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence toward a restriction of abortion rights.)

Gonzales v. Carhart "seems to have turned open the floodgates for conservative legislatures across the country to enact increasingly restrictive measures concerning abortions," Toti says.

With the Supreme Court as conservative as it has been since 1973, when Roe v. Wade guaranteed all American women the right to choose, more and more state-level politicians are looking to pass anti-choice bills that will be deemed constitutionally unsound. This way, they can take their fight all the way to the highest court in the land, where pro-life justices may look favorably upon their case. (A group in Georgia has openly admitted this is its goal as it tries to jam an anti-choice bill through that state's legislature.)

Meanwhile, in places like Oklahoma, where abortion already carries a stigma, politicians will continue to push through a litany of bills designed to shame women away from abortion and steer health care providers away from offering such services. What legislators like those in Oklahoma and elsewhere refuse to recognize is that by making access to legal abortion services so prohibitive, they will only push more and more women to unsafe pregnancy-termination options.

As Parks, of the Planned Parenthood agency in Oklahoma says, "When women make up their minds -- that's it."

These measures won't be a deterrent to abortion; they will merely make the whole practice more inhumane, and how is that "pro-life"?

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.