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Updated Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 05:52 AM

Okla. court says abortion laws unconstitutional

By TIM TALLEY
Associated Press

Oklahoma laws requiring women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound image placed in front of them while they hear a description of the fetus and that ban off-label use of certain abortion-inducing drugs are unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The state's highest court determined that lower court judges were right to halt the laws. In separate decisions, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said the laws, which received wide bipartisan support in the Legislature, violated a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case.

The Oklahoma court said it has a duty to "follow the mandate of the United State Supreme Court on matters of federal constitutional law."

The Legislature passed the ultrasound law in 2010. Oklahoma is one of several states that have passed laws requiring doctors to both perform an ultrasound and provide a verbal description of the fetus before an abortion. The other law was approved in 2011.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights challenged both laws, and Oklahoma County judges had halted their enforcement while the court cases made their way through the judicial system.

Michelle Movahed, a staff attorney for the abortion-rights group, said the rulings represent a "sweeping and unequivocal" rejection of the Legislature's attempt to restrict the reproductive rights of women.

Nancy Northup, the center's president and CEO, said Oklahoma has been a testing ground for a national network of organizations she said are hostile to women, doctors and the rights of both.

"But despite their best efforts to chip away at women's fundamental rights, the courts have consistently rejected these extreme assaults on reproductive freedom," Northrup said in a statement.

State Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose office appealed lower-court decisions that invalidated the laws, said he is considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We disagree with the court's decision, particularly with the fact that the question on whether Oklahoma's Constitution provides a right to an abortion was left unanswered," Pruitt said in a statement.

The ultrasound law was struck down in March by District Judge Bryan Dixon, who ruled that the statute was an unconstitutional special law that could not be enforced because it addressed only patients, physicians and sonographers dealing with abortions without addressing other medical care.

Tony Lauinger, chairman of the anti-abortion group Oklahomans for Life, said he believes the state Supreme Court has misinterpreted the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision. He said the Oklahoma ultrasound measure provides a level of informed consent for women seeking abortions, something he said the federal decision permits.

"The ultrasound law does not prohibit abortion. It regulates abortion," Lauinger said.

The other state law was rejected in May by District Judge Donald Worthington, who ruled it violated "the fundamental rights of women to privacy and bodily integrity."

The law required doctors to follow strict guidelines authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and prohibited off-label uses of certain abortion-inducing drugs such as RU-486. Such moves include changing a recommended dosage or prescribing it for different symptoms than the drug was initially approved for.

The law also required doctors to examine women before prescribing the drugs, document certain medical conditions and schedule follow-up appointments.

Pruitt said he was disappointed with the court's decision.

"There is overwhelming evidence that the off-label use of abortion-inducing drugs leads to serious infections and death for many healthy, unsuspecting women. This is not OK," Pruitt said.

All nine justices on the court joined in the decision involving the abortion-inducing drugs, while eight justices concurred in the ultrasound ruling. Justice Noma Gurich, a former Oklahoma County judge who issued an injunction blocking enforcement of that law in July 2010, recused herself from the decision.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court halted an effort to grant "personhood" rights to human embryos, citing the same 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case on appeal.


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