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Oklahoma Law Poses Serious Privacy Threat to Women Obtaining Abortions

October 9, 2009

A new law, HB 1595, is set to take effect that could potentially seriously compromise the privacy (and safety) of women seeking abortions in that state. The law deals in part with collection of data about abortion in the state via an Individual Abortion Form which asks providers a number of questions about the details of the procedure and the woman requesting it.

The law requires that the State Department of Health make the form available on its website to abortion providers, and that providers complete a form for each department and submit it to the State Department of Health. This in itself is not so problematic, as many states have this type of surveillance in place. Collecting this type of data, and reporting it in aggregate, allows us to know things that run contrary to popular myths about abortion, such as that ~60% of U.S. women who have abortions are already mothers.

Proponents of the bill have described it as an attempt to find out whether “Complications of abortion…and the magnitude of abortions’ toll on women’s health and well-being” is “truly known.”

What’s not necessary for such data gathering, however, is that each individual form be posted to a publicly available website. The law requires that “The Department shall post the Individual Abortion form to its stable Internet website.” While it does contain provisions that the form not include an individual woman’s name or address, making each patient-specific form available to the public is not needed for simply understanding the reasons women have abortions and the characteristics and outcomes of women who have abortions – those can be tallied and summarized by trained public health and statistics people and reported in aggregate as are the CDC’s abortion surveillance data. In fact, Oklahoma has had an abortion surveillance program in place since 2000, and has itself reported some of the demographic data about women obtaining abortions in that state, but – importantly – that state data is compiled rather than individual.

A reasonable woman in a small community might reasonably fear that the provided information, including the date of the procedure, her county, age, race, marital status, level of education, provided reason, whether she’s an emancipated minor or had a specific, named life-endangering condition, physician name and other details could be combined and interpreted to make reasonable guesses about who a form applies to. Protesters/anti-abortion activists could make linking the two much easier simply by showing up at clinics on abortion day and recording identifying information about people on those dates.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between this law and efforts in my own state to require death certificates for each abortion, as they’re both moves pushed by anti-abortion legislators and carry the implied threat of public exposure/shaming as a deterrent to abortion. The option to collect the supposedly desired data on complications and reasons for abortion without potentially violating each woman’s privacy was clearly available following existing methods of public health surveillance, but the legislators did not choose that option.

The suggested language for the form also repeatedly uses language about “the mother” and “the unborn child,” which is its own can of worms. The measure is expected to cost $281,285 the first year and $256,285 each subsequent year. A legal challenge has been filed against the bill by former Oklahoma state representative Wanda Stapleton and an Oklahoma resident – they are being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights arguing on grounds that the Oklahoma Constitution requires that laws address only one subject at a time, but the new measure covers four distinct abortion-related subjects.

More commentary on this law:

12 Comments leave one →
  1. MomTFH permalink
    October 10, 2009 1:48 pm

    I think this is a horrifying dehumanization of these women. It is a common procedure, and does not warrant institutional shaming. There are so many conditions that would benefit for surveillance (with appropriate privacy protection) that don’t have the funding. This fervor is only about shaming, not about improving health.

    • October 10, 2009 6:20 pm

      Exactly. If it were only about health, the public posting of each form would be completely unnecessary.

  2. drosenthal permalink
    October 10, 2009 6:36 pm

    If the voters do not rise up and have this bill rescinded, they deserve what they get – how dare any legislature propose such an archaic law. What next – the return of the scarlet letter?
    How about a law requiring the publication of the names of every guy who purchases a ‘male enhancement supplement’ so that we can study the long term effects of this drug? Can you imagine the riots in the streets?!?

  3. October 11, 2009 12:21 am


    That would not at all be unreasonable. I am all for having accurate data on a range of health care issues.

    A ‘scarlett letter’ seems extreme. Such data would be of considerable value in planning health care policy. and, Also we know from the current health care debate that since the government wants to make us buy health care, it is only fair that they get more say in how we utilize health care.

    • October 11, 2009 6:21 am

      Mark Rogers, your opinion does not determine whether publishing private health information is extreme. It is extreme based on our standards of care and values. You think publicly publishing the individual demographics of each abortion patient is of considerable value?

      How can publishing minute details about a woman’s life when she gets an abortion help shape public policy? Especially when the federal government does not fund abortions and ignores the failure of abstinence only education? There is already a significant amount of information on abortion in the United States to drive policy decisions.

      The government can easily significantly reduce unplanned pregnancy without releasing the records of a single patient. They can support comprehensive sex education and make sure birth control is accessible and affordable.

      Also, I don’t think it’s the Oklahoma state legislature that wants to require us to buy health care. I would say that would be the Senate Financial Committee. I doubt they would approve such ridiculous legislation obviously intended to shame one common medical procedure.

    • October 11, 2009 10:14 am

      As I think I made exceedingly clear, and as MomTFH has emphasized, it’s entirely possible to have accurate data on a range of healthcare issues without ever publishing a single patient’s form to the web. Data is already collected for surveillance for a whole host of health-related issues without such an unnecessary step, so a model for doing so is clearly in place. This is not about the data, because collecting the data doesn’t require such an action.


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