Oklahoma legislature approves ‘total ban’ on abortion

If signed into law, the state would effectively outlaw all abortions and make providers and anyone who ‘aids or abets’ care subject to civil suits

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 19 May 2022 20:59
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Oklahoma’s Republican-dominated state legislature gave final approval to the nation’s most severe anti-abortion bill, which outlaws the procedure at any point past fertilisation.

The bill – which Governor Kevin Stitt has pledged to sign into law – has already drawn legal challenges from abortion providers and advocates. The measure is designed to take effect immediately once the governor signs it into law.

Once he does, Oklahoma will be the first state in the US to effectively make all abortions illegal, and abortion providers and anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion would be subject to civil suits from private individuals.

Governor Stitt, who has pledged to “outlaw” abortion in the state despite constitutional protections affirmed by the US Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, has already signed several anti-abortion measures into law this year, including a ban on the procedure past six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.

He also signed a law that makes abortion care a felony punishable up to 10 years in prison, set to take effect in August.

“This ban must be stopped – along with the other abortion bans the state passed just last month,” according to a statement from Planned Parenthood Action.

Opponents warn that the bill could criminalise some forms of contraception as well as in vitro fertilisation.

If signed into law, patients across the state – including patients from Texas who have relied on abortion access in the neighbouring state after draconian measures were signed into law last year – would effectively be forced to carry pregnancies to term or travel long distances to states where care is accessible.

The bill passed the state’s House of Representatives on 19 May by a vote of 73-16.

Oklahoma’s measures joins a wave of anti-abortion bills filed by state legislators this year, emboldened by a forthcoming decision in a Mississippi case at the Supreme Court that is expected to overturn the landmark decision in Roe v Wade and its affirming ruling from 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Casey.

A decision in that case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is expected in June.

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The Supreme Court heard arguments in the Dobbs case in December. But the nation’s high court also declined to intervene in the Texas law banning abortions at six weeks, fuelling a wave of severely restrictive anti-abortion legislation that Republican lawmakers expected could survive legal scrutiny despite clear constitutional challenges.

Oklahoma already has a so-called “trigger” ban in place, which would outlaw abortions entirely, designed to take effect without Roe protections.

Emily Wales, interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which serves four states including Oklahoma, said the measure “is not one more ban. It is not another ban. It is a first” and a “reversal of history happening in front of our eyes.”

“We are set to mourn the loss of protections that have ensured the ability of people to make personal medical decisions,” she said during a briefing on Thursday.

Rabia Muqaddam, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the wave of anti-abortion legislation in the state has thrown patients “into chaos”.

“There’s no denying this is a very dark day,” she said. “It is essential that states where possible ... step up and [affirm] under their state constitutions that abortion is protected.”

“The fact that Oklahoma politicians are proud of passing [the bill] is an embarrassment,” added Dr Iman Alsaden, medical director for Planned Parenthood Great Plains.

Dr Alsaden condemned the state’s anti-abortion agenda and its disparate impacts among Black and Indigenous patients and their families and people of color.

The latest measure will likely force them to “to leave their community or have a forced birth,” she said. “This is not freedom.”

More than one-fifth of children in Oklahoma live below the poverty line, and 71 per cent of low-income residents enrolled in a food assistance programme are families with children. The state also ranks 42nd in overall child wellbeing.

With the state’s poor health outcomes and poor maternal health and high rates of incarceration, Oklahoma is “not a pro-life state,” Dr Alsaden said. “Oklahoma is a pro-government, pro-control state. Oklahoma wants to control your bodily autonomy and take away your basic human rights.”

Tamya Cox-Toure, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said the latest bill also is unclear whether “aiding and abetting” includes providers and advocates helping people make decisions about their healthcare.

“We believe we have a First Amendment right to talk to people about their choices,” she said.

She said abortion rights advocates and opponents of the bill will continue to “raise enough hell as they can.”

“We will not stop fighting for Oklahomans to get the care they need and most importantly the care that they want,” she said.

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