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Oklahoma abortion laws would send providers to prison for up to a decade and worsen access for the region

Abortion rights advocates gather outside the Oklahoma Capitol on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Oklahoma City, to protest several anti-abortion bills being considered by the GOP-led Legislature.
Sean Murphy
Abortion rights advocates gather outside the Oklahoma Capitol on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Oklahoma City, to protest several anti-abortion bills being considered by the GOP-led Legislature.

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed Texas' abortion restriction law to stand. That has driven up demand in Oklahoma, and has caused doubts the court would strike down new laws.

Oklahoma lawmakers are in a mad dash to eradicate abortion in Oklahoma, passing a slew of bills to restrict — and in some cases, even criminalize — the procedure. These laws now stand a better chance of going into effect, and that if they do, will have a major impact on the region, not just Oklahoma.

“Be vigilant… or panic”

Abortion restriction bills aren’t new in Oklahoma. Lawmakers are guaranteed to run them every year, especially with an election around the corner. But abortion rights supporters say this year is not business as usual.

“Be vigilant. I think that’s very fair… or panic. Whatever people need to do, I understand,” Tamya Cox-Touré, the executive director of ACLU Oklahoma and a long-time abortion access advocate, said. “It’s super tough right now.”

She was one of many organizers who worked on the Bans Off Our State rally on Tuesday.

Demonstrators turned out to protest several abortion restirctions that were already in the works. As the rally continued outside, House Republicans voted to pass the most strenuous abortion ban yet — and as a surprise.

Senate Bill 612 would criminalize abortions; medical providers who amdinister them would face up to a decade in prison. The bill’s passage was abrupt. It made it through the Senate last year, but stalled out. It only took a House floor vote this year to send it to Governor Kevin Stitt’s desk.

The House advanced a separate bill on Wednesday. Public Health Committee members approved Senate Bill 1503, a copycat of Texas’ law, which has survived legal challenges and gone into effect. It banned the vast majority of abortions by making abortion a civil issue, so private citizens enforce it with lawsuits.

A changing judicial landscape

That law’s success creates a very different situation for abortion bills in Oklahoma. StateImpact talked with Iman Alsaden, the medical director for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which serves Oklahoma and several surrounding states.

“So this year is different because, first of all, the Supreme Court has refused to acknowledge that this type of healthcare is a constitutional right,” Alsaden said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court made its decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion was considered a constitutional right, but that position seems to be reversing, as the court upholds laws such as the one in Texas. Abortion access supporters say if the court upholds Mississippi’s latest abortion restriction laws later this year, it would be a full reversal of Roe.

It’s too soon to tell what effectively overturning Roe will mean for Oklahoma. Cox-Toure said the abortion bills going through the Legislature now conflict with one another.

“And I just don’t know how we reconcile that until they get to kind of the final process,” Cox-Touré said.

Additionally, the state has a handful of so-called trigger laws — abortion restrictions that exist on the books now but will go into effect automatically if Roe is overturned.

“Worst case scenario, Roe is overturned, these bills uphold any legal challenges,” Cox-Touré said. “Oklahomans will have to travel out of the state to get the care that they need.”

The wider impact of Oklahoma’s ban

Oklahoma losing its ability to provide abortions wouldn’t just affect people here.

Before Texas’ restrictions took effect, The Oklahoman reported in-state abortion providers served a few dozen Texans a month on average. After the restriction, that number surged into the hundreds. Alsaden said without Oklahoma, those patients would be forced to travel even farther.

And, that barrier could continue moving north. As of now, Kansas’ state constitution contains protections for abortion access.

“There’s a ballot initiative in August of 2022 to remove that state constitutional protection for abortion,” Alsaden said. “And then you’re looking at Kansas getting knocked off the post-Roe map, as we’re calling it.”

Abortion access supporters say those are the prosepctive concerns, but there is one major issue as of today:

“The biggest concern is that when people hear that these bills are making their way through the Legislature, they automatically think that they can’t access an abortion,” Cox-Touré said.

Regardless of which bills pass and whether they go into law, abortion is legal in Oklahoma at least until mid-summer.

StateImpact’s Robby Korth contributed to this report.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Catherine Sweeney grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and attended Oklahoma State University. She has covered local, state and federal government for outlets in Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington, D.C.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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