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Oklahoma court ruling against abortion access restrictions is a victory for women's health and the rule of law

Stephanie Toti [Staff Attorney, The Center for Reproductive Rights]: "A state district court in Oklahoma sent a clear message last week when it struck down a law that imposed numerous restrictions on access to abortion services. Enacted in 2008, the law's restrictions included a provision that would have prevented a woman from obtaining an abortion unless she first submitted to an ultrasound and listened to her doctor describe the ultrasound image to her in detail; a provision that would have prevented a woman from suing her obstetrician for malpractice if the obstetrician intentionally withheld information from her about fetal anomalies that may have led her to consider having an abortion; and a provision that would have restricted access to the abortion pill. After some of these provisions failed to meet the deadline for advancing in the legislature, they were combined with other, more popular, provisions into a single omnibus measure. That action was taken despite an Oklahoma constitutional imperative that a single piece of legislation address no more than a single subject.

The court's ruling [PDF file] that the omnibus measure violated the Oklahoma Constitution's single-subject rule was a victory not just for women's health, but also for the rule of law. It sent a clear message that the agenda of a small special interest lobby cannot trump constitutional values and democratic norms. Around the country, those with an anti-choice agenda have tried repeatedly to muscle-through legislation that does not have the support of a majority of the electorate. Perhaps the most prominent example of this occurred in South Dakota in 2006. The South Dakota legislature enacted a complete ban on abortion, but voters overwhelmingly rejected this action, overturning the ban through a referendum. The law in Oklahoma fits this pattern. Its most restrictive provisions could not have passed on their own, so they were combined with more popular provisions, to force legislators to pass them despite a lack of public support.

Had the Oklahoma law been allowed to take effect, it would have threatened women's continued access to abortion in a state where onerous legal burdens and intimidation by anti-choice extremists have already whittled the number of licensed abortion providers down to three. Moreover, it would have demeaned women, embodying a presumption that women are not capable of making informed medical decisions independently. The law would have enabled the State, and certain obstetricians, to control the information that a woman receives about her pregnancy - forcing some women to receive information that they consider irrelevant and preventing others from receiving information that they would consider crucial. Unable to pass this extreme and offensive law using proper methods, anti-choice legislators resorted to unconstitutional tactics.

The court's ruling striking down the omnibus measure vindicated the rule of law in Oklahoma and will serve to ensure that the Oklahoma legislature abides by the Oklahoma Constitution, rather than the whims of a special interest lobby with an extremist agenda. Thankfully, it will also ensure that women in Oklahoma will continue to have access to safe and legal abortion services, and will be treated with dignity and respect under the law. For those reasons, it should be applauded."

Stephanie Toti was the lead attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights on the case of Nova Health Systems d/b/a Reproductive Services v. Drew Edmondson.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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