Group sues to block Okla. abortion bill that became law with Senate override of veto

By Tim Talley, AP
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Abortion-rights group sues to block Okla. bill

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Brad Henry’s veto of two abortion bills, including one that an abortion-rights group has said would be among the nation’s strictest measures against the procedure.

The narrow override votes in the Republican-controlled Senate came a day after the state House voted overwhelmingly to do the same, meaning the bills became law immediately. The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights quickly filed a lawsuit, however, seeking to block enforcement of one of the statutes.

It requires women to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion. The person who performs the ultrasound must describe the dimensions of the fetus, whether arms, legs and internal organs are visible and whether the physician can detect cardiac activity. He or she must also turn a screen depicting the images toward the woman so she can see them.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has said the ultrasound requirement intrudes upon a patient’s privacy and forces a woman to hear information that may not be relevant to her medical care. The group also believes it could interfere with the physician-patient relationship by compelling doctors to deliver unwanted speech.

“The constitutional issues are very serious,” said Jennifer Mondino, an attorney for the group. Oklahoma County District Judge Noma Gurich set a hearing Monday on the organization’s request for a temporary restraining order.

Henry, a Democrat, had also cited constitutional issues in vetoing the law, saying the measures were an unlawful intrusion into citizens’ private lives and lacked exemptions for rape and incest victims.

“Both laws will be challenged and, in all likelihood, overturned by the courts as unconstitutional,” he said after the override votes. “I fear this entire exercise will ultimately be a waste of taxpayers’ time and money.”

The other abortion measure overridden by the Senate prohibits pregnant women from seeking damages if physicians withhold information or provide inaccurate information about their pregnancy. Supporters of that measure have said it is an attempt to keep pregnant women from discriminating against fetuses with disabilities. Mondino said the group’s lawsuit does not seek to block enforcement of that law.

Supporters said the measures will provide a pregnant woman with the information she needs to decide whether to have an abortion and help protect the fetus.

“No one is more vulnerable than a child in the womb,” said Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City. “They have no voice except ours.”

Lawmakers in other nearby states have also recently passed laws placing new restrictions on abortion. Nebraska enacted laws barring the procedure at and after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the assertion fetuses can feel pain at that point and requiring women be screened before having abortions for mental health issues and other risk factors indicating if they might have problems afterward.

Kansas lawmakers approved a bill to require doctors to report more detailed information to the state about the late-term abortions they perform. The measure also would allow patients and family members to sue doctors over legally questionable late-term procedures. Gov. Mark Parkinson vetoed the measure on April 15, and supporters are expected to try to override his action.

The Oklahoma Senate’s override votes on both measures were 36-12, the minimum support of three-quarters of the 48-member Senate that was required. A handful of Democrats said the ultrasound procedure was overly invasive and urged their colleagues to sustain Henry’s vetoes.

“You have this intrusive, medically unnecessary procedure against someone’s will,” said Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City.

“It is my body, not your body,” said Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa, who described the ultrasound measure as a “horrible, horrible bill.”

“We know this is wrong,” she said.

The lawsuit against that measure was filed about two hours after the Senate vote, Mondino said, on behalf of Nova Health Systems, which operates a clinic in Tulsa, and Dr. Larry Burns, who provides abortions in Norman. It seeks a temporary restraining order to immediately block enforcement of the statute and an expedited hearing on the group’s request for an injunction.

Henry had vetoed similar ultrasound legislation in 2008, and was also overridden by lawmakers. But an Oklahoma County judge struck down the bill before it took effect on the grounds that it contained multiple subjects, in violation of the state constitution’s requirement that bills deal with a single subject.

Henry has signed other measures on abortion including a law requiring clinics to post signs stating that a woman cannot be forced to have an abortion, saying an abortion will not be performed until the woman gives her voluntary consent and making abortions based on child’s gender illegal.

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