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Oklahoma Legislature passes bill to make performing abortions a felony

Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said he would sign any anti-abortion rights bill that comes to him.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — The state House passed a bill Tuesday that would make performing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, has said he will sign any anti-abortion rights bill sent to him. If he signs this one, it will go into effect this summer.

Another House bill, 4327, would allow private citizens to file lawsuits against doctors who perform abortions and would only allow a woman to have an abortion if her life were at stake. It now goes to the state Senate.

"It's terrifying to think that we're going backwards in time, that we're actually watching in real time getting our rights taken away from us," said Kristin Williams, a participant in an abortion rights rally Tuesday in Oklahoma City, the capital.

The state has already imposed restrictions intended to deter women from having abortions, including barring them from using health insurance to pay for the procedure except for life-saving purposes; requiring an ultrasound and state-mandated counseling that seeks to discourage abortions; and imposing a 72-hour waiting period before the procedure. 

Abortion providers say they feel like they are living in a “post-Roe environment,” referring to the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion nationwide.

“We are adjusting to major legislative changes, especially in Texas, and what that looks like when a basic medical procedure is no longer available to people in one of our largest states and medical systems in the country,” said Dr. Christina Bourne, medical director at the Trust Women clinic in Oklahoma City.

Texas, which has the nation's most restrictive abortion law, bans the procedure after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, about six weeks into a pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape, sexual abuse, incest or fetal anomalies. It took effect in September.

Republican lawmakers in other states, including TennesseeIdaho and Missouri, have rushed to introduce copycat bills. The proposal in Arkansas goes beyond Texas’ six-week limit, banning abortions at any stage of pregnancy, except when the mother’s life is at risk. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization focused on reproductive health rights, 71 proposed bills have been introduced in 28 states this year to outlaw or ban abortions. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this summer on a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a ruling that could severely erode or even overturn Roe.

Image: Oklahoma abortion
Abortion rights advocates gather outside the Oklahoma Capitol on Tuesday to protest several anti-abortion bills being considered by the GOP-led Legislature.Sean Murphy / AP

Abortions in Texas have dropped by 60 percent since S.B. 8 went into effect, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, but data from the University of Texas indicated Texas women are crossing state lines for the procedure or obtaining it by other means.

Providers from California to New York say they’re seeing an influx of patients from Texas, and the Trust Women clinics in Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kansas, said their patient load had risen significantly since the Texas bill passed.

“What we saw very immediately after S.B. 8 is we doubled our volume,” said Kailey Voellinger, clinic director at Trust Women Oklahoma City. “We went from seeing about 100 to 150 patients to almost 300 in a month.” 

With Oklahoma's laws becoming more restrictive by the day, providers are concerned the state will no longer be an option for Texas women seeking abortions.

The Trust Women clinics are turning patients away, reducing their capacity to provide any other health care services besides abortions. 

Bourne said her clinic receives over 100 calls an hour just from women trying to schedule appointments, and since they’re booked weeks in advance, some women, especially those who don’t learn they’re pregnant right away, may not be able to get an abortion because of the delay.

“We could truly be providing abortions 24 hours a day and not meet the needs of people who already access our clinic,” Bourne said. “And truly, we will not be able to meet the abortion needs of every single person in the Midwest, in the South.”

The fight for more restrictive laws has energized the anti-abortion rights movement, whose members say they can see an end to legal abortion on the horizon.

“It’s definitely a great start to a final victory, and we’re in great position to win,” said Shawn Carney, president of 40 Days for Life, an international anti-abortion rights organization.

“Women do choose life, and we have to support them and we have to allocate the resources for them,” he said. “That is why you’re seeing abortions drop not just in Texas but in other states that regulate this very often unregulated abortion industry.”

Abortion providers are looking for possible alternatives should H.B. 4327 pass in Oklahoma. Those in Texas are working to build relationships in nearby states, like New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado, if access in Oklahoma is no longer an option. 

In Oklahoma, clinics are looking at possibilities like mobile vans that would drive patients to the Kansas border where they could receive care. 

"Abortion providers, and people who work in the abortion community, are like deeply creative, deeply flexible people," Bourne said. "And we’re able to maneuver these hardships.”