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Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Constitution v. "Oklahoma's Values"

Pity poor Brad Henry. An Oklahoma Democrat and the panhandle state's 26th governor, he has become the unlikely center of the abortion argument nationwide. Like many state legislatures -- eleven and counting says The New York Times in an article published today -- Oklahoma's has sought to put pressure on abortion rights by making it that much more difficult for women to get what remains a legal procedure protected by federal law. No less than eight abortion-themed bills have been introduced in the Oklahoma legislature recently, including several very modern ones like that barring an abortion performed because of the gender of the fetus or barring "wrongful life" lawsuits where a child is born with an unanticipated birth defect which had it been known to the mother before the child's birth would have prompted her to terminate the fetus.

The other bills fall more generally in the territory of forcing women and abortion practitioners to weigh the moral issues inherent in the decision to undergo or perform an abortion. One requires that the woman undergo an ultrasound no more than one hour before performing the procedure, that she be shown those pictures and that the doctor explain them. Another requires that a sign be posted in practitioners' offices reminding patients that it is against the law for someone to force someone else to undergo an abortion.

While all of these bills raise constitutional questions regarding their consistency with Roe and other, more recent abortion decisions by the Supreme Court, by far the most contentious bill before the Oklahoma legislature has been HB 3284 which requires women to answer 38 questions, many of them attempts to undermine the woman's resolve before undergoing an abortion. Glenn Coffee, an Oklahoma state senate Republican, describes the legislators' efforts as Oklahomans "holding true to Oklahoma values." But they have put Gov. Henry in a very difficult place. While abortion has traditionally been a topic that politicians would prefer to avoid -- asserting that it is a judicial, not a political decision -- Oklahoma is calling out representatives on where they stand, with of course the attendant political consequences. When HB 3284 reached his desk, Henry vetoed it but the legislature than overrode his decision (one of three times that the lawmakers overrode the governor on an abortion bill in this session alone), making it Oklahoma law.

So precisely what are the questions that doctors must answer before an abortion can be performed? You can read all 38 here. They include description in detail of the method of abortion and, in the highly controversial question #15, precisely why the woman seeks an abortion. She is allowed to choose all that apply from among forty choices (including the option of saying that she does not wish to reveal why she is having an abortion). The data achieved by compiling the results from this questionnaire will appear on a state website where a deeper understanding of how and why women choose abortion can be perhaps be understood more deeply or merely used as a tool for political advocacy.

The fact that state legislatures are moving with such speed and variety in their pursuit of limits to abortion rights may be a response to the shifting popular views on abortion. Abortion rates have fallen among the middle and upper classes since 1990, though they have increased among the poor, and, as described in an earlier post, the percentage of the American population that actually approves of abortion rights has dropped in recent years.

Gov. Henry has served as the chief executive of Oklahoma since 2003, but term limits prevent him from seeking a third term this year and Republicans leaders are excited at the opportunity to to pick up the state house. Early polls suggest that former lieutenant governor Mary Fallin would easily defeat either of the principal Democratic candidates vying for the nomination: state Attorney General Drew Edmondson or Lieutenant Governor Jeri Askins.


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