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Okla. Supreme Court strikes down TRAP law; state to require antiabortion-rights signage in many public restrooms

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a state law (SB 1848) that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, calling the requirement "an undue burden on a wom[a]n's access to abortion," Reuters reports (Herskovitz, Reuters, 12/13).

Background

The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed a lawsuit against the law on behalf of Larry Burns, an abortion provider who owns the Abortion Surgery Center in Norman, Oklahoma. According to the lawsuit, the law would force Burns to close the clinic because he has not been able to meet the admitting privileges requirement after applying at 16 hospitals. Burns performs about 44 percent of abortion procedures in the state.

In October 2014, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Bill Graves ruled the admitting privileges law could take effect. CRR appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

In November 2014, the Oklahoma Supreme Court temporarily blocked enforcement of the law, which had taken effect earlier that month. In a unanimous decision, the court wrote that the law would remain on hold until it is "fully and finally litigated." They noted that the decision was not an opinion on the legality of the law.

In July of last year, District Judge Don Andrews said more information was needed to answer questions presented in the lawsuit, temporarily leaving in place the injunction against the law. In February, Andrews ruled that the law is constitutional, although he said the state Supreme Court's temporary injunction would remain in place.

Earlier this year, CRR asked the state Supreme Court to review Andrews' ruling upholding the law in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling overturning a similar admitting privileges requirement in Texas. In that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the admitting privileges requirement, as well as an ambulatory surgical center building requirement, imposed an undue burden on women's access to abortion care (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/13).

State Supreme Court strikes down law

On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court overturned the Oklahoma admitting privileges law, ruling that the requirement violates both the state and U.S. Constitutions.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas case, Oklahoma Justice Joseph Watt wrote, "Under the guise of the protection of women's health, ... (the law) creates an undue burden on a woman's access to abortion, violating protected rights under our federal Constitution" (Miller, AP/Sacramento Bee, 12/13). Citing the Oklahoma State Medical Association, which contested claims that the requirement aided women's health, the justices continued, "We find there is no evidence to support defendants' position that this legislation protects and advances women's health." According to the state justices, the law, if allowed to remain in place, would have left the state with only one clinic to provide care for four million people (Reuters, 12/13).

Further, the high court said the law violated the state Constitution's prohibition on legislation that addresses multiple unrelated topics. Noting that the law included "12 separate and unrelated subsections," the state justices wrote, "The sections in SB 1848 are so unrelated and misleading that a legislator voting on this matter could have been left with an unpalatable all-or-nothing choice."

Comments

CRR President and CEO Nancy Northup praised the decision. "Today's decision is a victory for Oklahoma women and another rebuke to politicians pushing underhanded laws that attack a woman's constitutionally guaranteed right to safe, legal abortion" (Miller, AP/Sacramento Bee, 12/13).

Separately, Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate for the Guttmacher Institute, also lauded the ruling, saying, "Evidence matters and the evidence shows that there was no compelling public health interest for the measure" (Reuters, 12/13).

Okla. to require antiabortion-rights restroom signs

In related news, the Oklahoma Board of Health on Tuesday approved regulations that will require hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants and public schools to place signs in public restrooms aimed at dissuading women from seeking abortion care, the AP/Sacramento Bee reports.

Details on signage requirement

According to the AP/Bee, the signage provision was included in a larger law (HB 2797), passed earlier this year, that requires the state to develop and disseminate antiabortion-rights materials. Donald Maisch, an attorney with the state Board of Health, said the signage rules have to be ratified by the state Legislature and the governor before they take effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

Under the regulations, affected businesses and organizations will have to post a sign that reads, "There are many public and private agencies willing and able to help you carry your child to term and assist you and your child after your child is born, whether you choose to keep your child or to place him or her for adoption. The State of Oklahoma strongly urges you to contact them if you are pregnant." The signs must also include a link to the website for the state Health Department.

Maisch said the signage provision will apply to any organization regulated by the state Board of Health, which includes hospitals, hotels, motels, nursing homes, residential care facilities and the majority of public schools. However, state Sen. A.J. Griffin (R), the sponsor of the regulation's underlying legislation, said she might revise the requirement in the next legislative session so that it would not affect as many organizations.

Currently, because state lawmakers did not allocate funding to implement the regulations, affected organizations will have to spend an estimated $2.1 million to post the signage.

Comments

According to the AP/Bee, groups representing businesses and other affected organizations voiced concerns about the cost of implementing the measure. The Oklahoma Hospital Association estimated it would cost the state's 140 licensed hospitals at least $225,000 to implement the law.

Separately, the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy lambasted the regulations as "completely unnecessary and unwanted." According to the campaign, the rules would impose additional financial burdens on state agencies, including the state departments of Health and Education (Murphy, AP/Sacramento Bee, 12/13).