Oklahoma judge rules pre-abortion sonogram law unconstitutional

The state's attorney general plans to appeal the ruling on the law, which required women to hear descriptions of ultrasound images before undergoing abortions.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted April 9, 2012

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A district judge has struck down a 2010 Oklahoma law requiring doctors to perform ultrasounds and provide detailed descriptions of their fetuses to women seeking abortions.

Oklahoma County District Judge Bryan C. Dixon ruled that the statute is invalid under the state’s constitution, which prohibits laws targeted only to certain populations.

The Ultrasound Act “is an unconstitutional special law ... in that it improperly is addressed only to patients, physicians and sonographers concerning abortions and does not address all patients, physicians and sonographers concerning other medical care where a general law could clearly be made applicable,” Dixon said in his opinion issued March 28.

Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt plans to appeal the ruling.

“The law is about presenting abortion accurately with full information about the outcome,” he said in a statement. “We have an obligation to protect our citizens and make sure abortion is held to the same standard as any medically informed decision.”

The sonogram law was enacted in April 2010 after Oklahoma legislators overrode then-Gov. Brad Henry’s veto of the measure. The law mandated that doctors and medical technicians perform a sonogram on any woman seeking an abortion, place the image in front of her and give a detailed description of the image. Health professionals who failed to comply would be subject to suspension or revocation of their medical licenses, according to the law.

Larry Burns, DO, and attorneys for the Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group, sued the state in 2010, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. A judge granted a preliminary injunction against the law in May 2010. In issuing his March 28 opinion, Dixon permanently blocked the law from going into effect.

The Center for Reproductive Rights said the decision protects women as well as the principles of medical ethics.

“The court has resoundingly affirmed what should not be a matter of controversy at all: that women have both a fundamental right to make their own choices about their reproductive health and that government has no place in their decisions,” said Nancy Northup, the center’s president and CEO. “Today’s decision adds to the growing momentum of a nationwide backlash against the overreaching of lawmakers hostile to women, their doctors and their rights.”

At this article’s deadline, messages left with Dr. Burns’ office had not been returned.

Similar laws face challenges

Sonogram laws in other states have faced similar legal challenges, but with differing outcomes. In Texas, the Center for Reproductive Rights sued over the state’s ultrasound law in June 2011. The law required doctors to show women seeking abortions sonogram images, describe the images in detail and play the sound of the fetal heartbeat if the women declined to view the images.

A district judge temporarily blocked the Texas law while the lawsuit was ongoing, but a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the injunction in February, allowing the measure to go into effect.

Another law in Virginia was scaled back by legislators after abortion rights advocates protested the measure.

The original version of the law would have required some women seeking abortions to undergo transvaginal sonograms. The revised law, signed into effect in March by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, requires women to have abdominal ultrasounds before obtaining abortions. Women must wait 24 hours after the sonograms before having the procedure.

A similar law in North Carolina has been enjoined by a court since October 2011 as a legal challenge against the measure continues.

The Idaho Legislature backed away from a bill requiring women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds first. The legislation passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

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