The details of your abortion online?

A new Oklahoma law requires the posting of private data on a public Web site

Published October 7, 2009 5:08PM (EDT)

Feminists for Choice alerts us to a new Oklahoma law (yes, law, not "proposed legislation" or "some kind of sick joke") set to go into effect Nov. 1 that would collect detailed data about each abortion performed -- and post it all on a public Web site called

Whether or not the law survives a current lawsuit, experts say, anyone tracking antiabortion legal strategy nationwide needs to keep a watchful eye on Oklahoma.

According to proponents of the law, this extensive abortion data -- which will include the reason the procedure was sought -- will help health officials prevent future abortions. Yeah, I can see that. Because the requirement itself would scare the shit out of me. "They're really just trying to frighten women out of having abortions," Keri Parks, director of external affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, told Broadsheet.

The required questionnaire (see PDF of entire law), practically as long and elaborate as eHarmony's (and containing fishy questions such as "Was there an infant born alive as a result of the abortion?"), does not include the name, address or "any information specifically identifying the patient." But opponents argue that the first eight questions alone would be enough to out any woman in a town of 200 or smaller.

Also, doctors failing to provide this information would face criminal sanctions and loss of their medical license.

It isn’t unique for a state to post health data on its Web site. However, Oklahoma’s requirements are by far the most extensive as such. The law's supporters claim they want this information to be made public so it can be used for "academic research," but according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, its collection method makes it useless for that purpose. (If a woman sees more than one doctor concerning her abortion -- primary care and abortion provider, say -- the data, collected each visit, will appear to represent more than one patient.)

The Center For Reproductive Rights has now joined forces with former state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, D-Oklahoma City, and Shawnee, Okla., resident Lora Joyce Davis to prevent the law from going into effect. They have filed a lawsuit claiming that the law "covers more than one subject" and thus violates the Oklahoma Constitution. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the bill covers four subjects: 1) redefining various  abortion-related terms used in state law; 2) banning sex-selective abortion; 3) creating reporting requirements; and 4) creating new duties for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision, and state Board of Osteopathic Examiners.

If this seems like a peculiar procedural-only attack, well, it's an effective one. That is, it worked for the CRR last time around, when the organization helped defeat a statute (and the legal bundle it came with) that would have (among other things) made Oklahoma the proud home of the most severe ultrasound law in the nation, requiring doctors to verbally describe the image to a woman seeking an abortion even despite her wishes to the contrary.

And in case you missed it above, this new law made Oklahoma the first state to pass a ban on (the straw man, in this case, of) sex-selective abortion. That in itself is an issue, as Jennifer Mondino, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Broadsheet: "The sex-selective bans in effect limit access to abortion because it may chill doctors from providing the service. It's difficult for a doctor to determine the reason why a woman is having an abortion. So it's yet another hurdle for doctors who are simply trying to provide a legal safe service. The legislature has chosen to pass this law rather than doing something that may actually combat a problem that may or may not exist in Oklahoma."

Maintenance of the planned Web site, by Oklahoma's own accounting, would cost over $200,000 a year, which is money we presume they'll have left over after feeding and clothing all existing children in need and making sure all underserved women who want to carry to term have access to prenatal care.

So, with any luck, the CRR, and the women and families of Oklahoma, should prevail in court again. That doesn't mean, however, that we should toss these wild salvos in the buncha-crazies bin of reproductive rights history. While the technique of bundling abortion restrictions together is not unique -- it's a way of passing harder-core laws by packaging them with more popular laws that a lawmaker doesn't want to oppose on record -- the Sooner State, of late, has been particularly creative. Call it the Oklahoma gambit: "Oklahoma serves as a sort of test case for new and extreme anti-choice legislation, and others in the anti-choice movement will watch what happens in that state to see if some strategy is successful," says Mondino. No matter what, these guys'll be back again, sowing stigma and straw men, wasting time and money -- and their allies will be watching, and learning. So should we. 

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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