New Oklahoma Abortion Law Violates Patient Privacy, Critics Charge

Abortion rights advocates are lashing out at a new law in Oklahoma that in less than two weeks will require doctors to release detailed information -- which will be posted on a public Web site -- about all women who have abortions in the state.

The law, which will take effect on Nov. 1, compels the Oklahoma Department of Health to publish data online on all abortion patients -- including the woman's race, marital status, financial circumstances, years of education, number of previous pregnancies, and her reason for seeking the abortion. Doctors who fail to provide such information will be criminally penalized and stripped of their medical licenses.

The Statistical Reporting of Abortions Act has outraged  many abortion rights activists who say it is a blatant violation of patient privacy rights and is meant to intimidate women from seeking abortions. The law also prohibits the use of abortion for sex-selection.

"The law itself is contrary to our Constitution," said Lora Joyce Davis, an Oklahoma resident who, along with former state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton, has filed a lawsuit over the measure.

The law does not permit women's names to be posted, but it does require them to provide answers to 37 questions -- including the county where the abortion is performed. Davis, who is working closely with the New York-based abortion rights group Center for Reproductive Rights, said such detailed demographic information will make it possible to identify patients, especially those who live in small towns.

"These are women who are already in a tragic situation, and the law will expose them about a very, very personal matter," Davis told on Tuesday. "It's a violation of patient privacy rights to put that information up there."

Jennifer Mondino, a staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, echoed Davis' complaint, saying, "The reporting requirements profoundly protrude on women's privacy."

"If you can think about being in a small town, you might know that teenager in the high school who is pregnant. It's not that difficult to link that person to the data that's going to be available on the Web site," she said.

Mondino added that the legislation "violates the spirit of HIPAA," the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 1966, which imposes strict regulations on patient privacy, including how such information can be used. The law mandates that information identifying patients must be protected.

But Oklahoma State Rep. Dan Sullivan, the Republican who authored the bill, told the data will be useful in stepping up education that targets demographics with high rates of unwanted pregnancies.

"If there's something that we can do to positively impact that segment of that population -- and have a lowering effect on those rates -- then we want to be able to look at what policy decisions we can make."

Sullivan said the suggestion that women from small communities will be easily identified has been "misrepresented." He said that of the 77 counties in Oklahoma, only three have abortion providers.

"If a woman from rural Oklahoma (county) goes to Tulsa (county) and has an abortion, her abortion stats are lumped together with all the other women who went to Tulsa to seek an abortion," Sullivan said.

"There's no way a person can be singled out or identified the way it would be listed."