The Oklahoma Senate on Thursday approved a Republican bill that would outlaw abortion, putting the state on track to be the first in the nation to enact a total abortion ban once the GOP governor signs the measure into law.
Oklahoma’s bill is modeled after the restrictive Texas law, enacted last fall, that has evaded court intervention with a novel legal strategy that empowers private citizens to enforce the law. But the Oklahoma bill goes even further than Texas, where abortion is allowed within up to six weeks of pregnancy.
The new measure makes exceptions for rape and incest — as long as they are reported to law enforcement — and medical emergencies. The bill cleared the Oklahoma House in March and now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who is expected to sign it.
The Senate vote was 35 to 10.
During the debate, state Sen. Warren Hamilton (R) questioned why the bill should include an exception for ectopic pregnancies, a life-threatening condition in which the fetus grows outside the uterus. “I wonder how we square that with the idea of justice for all,” said Hamilton, who also opposed the measure’s exceptions for rape and incest.
State Sen. Mary Boren (D) argued that “the only kind of abortion this bill attempts to reduce is legal abortion in Oklahoma,” emphasizing that the legislation would force women to travel to abortion clinics out of state or perform their own abortions. “That’s why this isn’t a pro-life bill. Jeopardizing women’s health is not pro-life.”
The measure would immediately cut off abortion access in a state that has absorbed nearly half of all Texas patients who have been forced to leave their state for abortions.
The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Wendi Stearman (R), has said the measure “will induce compliance as no abortion provider will be willing to risk the lawsuits they would face if they violate this act.”
Several Oklahoma clinics stopped scheduling abortions in anticipation of the bill. The other clinics are prepared to cease operations at any moment.
“It has been next to impossible to plan,” said Andrea Gallegos, executive administrator at Tulsa Women’s Clinic, an independent abortion clinic that has pledged to continue providing abortions until Stitt signs the bill. “We have a fully packed schedule.”
Several bills restricting abortion access have been simultaneously moving through the Oklahoma legislature this session. Stearman’s bill was preceded by another abortion bill also modeled after the Texas law, banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The Oklahoma House passed that bill Thursday morning.
Stitt signed yet another abortion ban earlier this month that makes performing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But abortion rights advocates in Oklahoma see these latest Texas-style bans as a far more immediate threat than their predecessor, which is not slated to take effect until the summer. The latest abortion bans will also be harder to challenge in court because of the novel enforcement mechanism behind the Texas ban.
Oklahoma legislators say the flurry of antiabortion legislation is in part a reaction to the recent surge of Texas patients. Of the thousands of Texas patients who traveled out of state for abortions from September to December, 45 percent went to Oklahoma, according to a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin.
“A state of emergency exists in Oklahoma,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R), the leader of the Senate who introduced the six-week ban, referring to the number of abortions that have been performed in Oklahoma since Texas enacted its law.
“It’s sickening,” Treat said. “And that’s the reason we’re making every effort to get our laws changed.”
Several states are not waiting for a Supreme Court decision this summer. Kentucky’s two abortion clinics stopped performing abortions for a week in mid-April after Republican lawmakers passed a sweeping package of antiabortion restrictions that clinics said made it impossible for them to continue abortion care, a law that has now been temporarily blocked by the courts.
And lawmakers in 13 states, including Oklahoma, have introduced their own versions of the Texas law, which could take effect regardless of the high court’s decision this summer.
Many antiabortion legislators see the Texas strategy as a promising path forward, despite widespread criticism from legal scholars who say it diminishes the power of the courts. Since September, the Supreme Court has passed up three opportunities to overturn the Texas ban, a move some Republicans have interpreted as a green light for this kind of legislation.
In Missouri, for example, state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R) said she felt newly optimistic about the prospects of the Texas-style abortion ban she’d proposed after the Supreme Court announced its December decision to let the Texas law stand.
“I thought, ‘okay, my bill has legs,’ ” Coleman said of her measure.
Besides Oklahoma, Idaho is the only other state that has successfully passed a Texas-style ban, though others, including Coleman’s Missouri measure, are still moving through the legislature. The Idaho law, which was slated to take effect April 22 after it was signed by Gov. Brad Little (R), has been temporarily blocked by the state Supreme Court, pending further review.
Planned Parenthood plans to file lawsuits against Oklahoma’s latest bans. While the Texas abortion ban was heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, widely known as the most conservative circuit court in the country, the Oklahoma ban will go up through the 10th Circuit, where justices may be more critical of the law.
“Unless these bans are blocked, patients will be turned away, people seeking abortion will be unable to access essential care in their own communities, and their loved ones could be stopped from supporting them due to fear of being sued,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, wrote in a statement.
Still, Oklahoma abortion providers are preparing for all or most abortions to be banned for the foreseeable future. Planned Parenthood clinics in the state have already started sending some of their doctors to Kansas, where one Planned Parenthood facility will start offering surgical abortions, in addition to medication abortions.
In the past few weeks, Gallegos said, she and other staff members wrestled with whether to continue scheduling appointments. She is eager for their doctors to see as many patients as possible — but at the same time, she said, she dreads having to call and cancel.
Now that the Texas-style bills have passed both chambers, Gallegos said she and her staff will call every patient scheduled for the next few days. While they should still come in as planned, she’ll tell them, they should know the Governor could sign the bills at any time.
After that, she said, she will send patients to New Mexico or Colorado, where many clinics are already fully booked.