As the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance in the Supreme Court, many states are moving ahead with their own restrictions on abortion.
Oklahoma’s state House voted 78-19 to pass a near-complete ban on abortions in mid-March, legislation that would go farther than the Texas six-week ban on which it was modeled.
Under the Oklahoma bill, abortions would be banned immediately after conception unless it met one of two exceptions: “to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency” or if the pregnancy was the “result of rape, sexual assault, or incest that has been reported to law enforcement.”
The bill, which abortion rights advocates call the strictest anti-abortion bill in the country if passed, is now headed to the state Senate next week for a vote.
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“This is a dark moment for Oklahomans and their ability to control their own bodies and futures and will have ripple effects throughout the region,” Jessica Arons, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “After seeing the devastation caused by Texas’ draconian abortion ban, Oklahoma politicians have taken the unconscionable step of imposing an even harsher ban on pregnant people seeking this essential health care.”
With Republicans holding more than 80 percent of the state House and Senate seats in Oklahoma, they are taking advantage of the largest supermajority in state history to push restrictions that appeal to their passionate and partisan voter base, said Rachel Blum, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.
For anti-abortion advocates and lawmakers, this has been a moment years in the making. While speaking to a crowd of anti-abortion protesters on the state senate floor in February, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor promised to take every step necessary to end the practice in the state for good.
“We will stay in that fight, and we will join every fight that we can until the scourge of abortion is eradicated,” O’Connor said. “In this chamber, we can be very proud of our legislature that continues to sponsor incredible legislation to protect the unborn.”
The Oklahoma Senate has already passed six other anti-abortion measures this session, two of which would effectively ban the procedure in the state and another that would pose the question of whether “personhood” begins at conception directly to voters later this year.
Oklahoma joins Idaho as two states that are seeking to replicate Texas’ Senate Bill 8, which banned the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy when the law went into effect Sept. 1. All told, more than a dozen other bills were pre-filed for the 2022 session that would not only restrict access to abortions in the state but criminalize a person seeking that care or doctors providing it, according to abortion rights advocates.
The proposals in Oklahoma join a wave of anti-abortion legislation across the country this year. Researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that promotes sexual and reproductive rights, report 71 pieces of legislation were introduced in 2022 in 28 state legislatures across the country that would outlaw or ban all abortions; 45 laws were introduced across 21 states specifically sought to restrict abortion clinics and providers. The institute says the number of bills is a response to many factors, including the increasingly conservative makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court since 2018 and the fact that the Supreme Court has weighed several recent cases that could lead justices to reconsider Roe v. Wade. Many states across the country led by right-leaning legislatures are seeking to establish legal groundwork should the landmark 1973 right to an abortion is modified or peeled back. Last year O’Connor filed a brief signed by 24 other state attorney generals, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Dr. Shelly Tien hands a patient the initial abortion inducing medication at Trust Women clinic in Oklahoma City, U.S., December 6, 2021. Of the 20 abortions performed that day, 17 of the patients came from Texas. Picture taken December 6, 2021. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS.
Representatives from Planned Parenthood and Trust Women Clinics in Oklahoma say they are preparing for an abortion ban to go into effect as early as April.
The new proposed laws come at a time when Oklahoma has seen a historic rise in patients traveling hundreds of miles from its neighboring state of Texas in search of care due to its own restrictions passed last year.
Advocates say they need help trying to handle the demands this influx has placed on the state’s four abortion clinics. Instead, they say, Oklahoma lawmakers seek to not only eliminate the federally protected right to abortion but punish those who help others obtain it.
“Abortion rights activists have been warning of this nightmare for months,” said Elisabeth Smith, Director of State Policy and Advocacy for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We are at a tipping point that feels painful, harmful and bizarre.”
Florida passed its own bill that would outlaw abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and similar proposals have been introduced in Ohio, Alabama, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arizona.
Last year, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a “trigger” law that would ban most abortions in the state if the Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and its 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that reaffirmed Roe. Stitt, who has labeled himself as the “most pro-life governor” in the country, has promised to sign any abortion restriction law the state legislature sends his way.
A 2014 Pew Research Poll showed Oklahoma voters siding with the nationwide trend that abortion should remain legal, yet the anti-abortion movement has strong support from both parties in the state. A 2015 survey from Sooner Poll, an independent polling operator in Oklahoma, showed that 79 percent of Republicans in the state consider themselves to be “pro-life”, and 57 percent of Democrats identified as “pro-life” with 47 percent identifying as “strongly pro-life.”
Blum, who has studied and written about how Republican leaders have woven issues like abortion into the fabric of the party, said abortion has long been a target of the GOP, and states like Oklahoma are following the national trend by trying to further restrict abortion access. But where Oklahoma differs is in the volume and severity of its proposed laws.
“When you have one party essentially controlling a state, division has to come from somewhere,” Blum said. “Because of that partisan monopoly, Republicans have more incentive to introduce extreme legislation because it helps them stand out and they have very few repercussions from voters.”
A passionate voter base
Through her volunteer efforts, Bailee Brown has gotten an inside look at the fight against abortion by Oklahoma’s state lawmakers.
Brown, 22, joined Students for Life of America, an anti-abortion group comprised mainly of high school and college students that began in 2006. She runs one of those chapters at her college, Oklahoma Baptist University. Through her work with Students for Life, Brown has visited with lawmakers, sat in on public information sessions and helped rally groups to demonstrate at the capitol in the name of ending abortion.
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Citing passages from the Bible, Brown said her faith is what compelled her to get involved in the fight to end abortion. She believes the movement to change hearts and minds on abortion is strong, but that laws banning or restricting abortion are necessary.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that our society would tell me that I’m unable to be successful because I’m pregnant,” Brown said. “Being a woman, it’s a superpower. To be able to create and cultivate life and facilitate life once it’s here is a gift from God.”
While Brown said she believes state lawmakers are acting out of a place of “love for the unborn,” she does not believe laws punishing pregnant women are necessary and that any “bounty” law allowing for lawsuits should be for abortion providers only.
“We need to see more pregnancy resource centers and counseling services for pregnant women become available,” she said. “We will need people to step up to adopt or foster or we need to help teach women how to be empowered as a single parent.”
An annual Rose Day ceremony each February draws hundreds of anti-abortion protesters to the Oklahoma Capitol to hear speeches from lawmakers, anti-abortion clinic staffers and religious leaders. This year, attendees left dozens of red roses piled up in front of Stitt’s office. Each rose is a symbol, activists say, of a “life lost” to abortion.
A group of students wait outside to meet with their state representative on “Rose Day” at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Anti-abortion protestors meet with lawmakers every year to pass out roses in honor of the “lives lost” to abortion. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour
Groups of children carried bouquets of roses to the offices of Oklahoma legislators to thank them for “fighting for the babies” as part of this year’s annual event, coordinated by a coalition of anti-abortion groups and religious organizations.
Mary Ann Schmidt, holding a bouquet of red roses to pass out to legislators, has been a volunteer for Rose Day for several years and has dedicated her life to the cause. She has visited Washington, D.C., for the annual “Walk for Life” and said she’s proud to lend her voice to ending abortion.
“Things are really turning,” Schmidt said. “I think this is going to be a big year. The Supreme Court has the power and so we are praying they make the right decision.
Speaking to demonstrators that day, O’Connor said he was “honored to be the tip of your spear,” praising state legislators for the number of new bills proposed this session that would limit or restrict access to abortions in the state.
“Push it as far as we possibly can”
The abortion restriction bills put forward by Oklahoma lawmakers are moved quickly through the legislature.
Six anti-abortion measures have passed through the state senate and will head to the State House of Representatives for a vote while House Bill 4327 a 78-19 vote in the house for an almost complete ban on abortions and will now head to the state senate.
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Senate Bill 1503, by Sen. Julie Daniels, a Republican from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, passed the State Senate by a vote of 33-11 and is modeled after a Texas’ SB8 law that would ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and allow private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion for up to $10,000 to enforce abortion laws.
Senate Bill 1553, which would prohibit an abortion 30 days after the probable beginning of a pregnant woman’s last menstrual period was also passed by a vote of 32-11.
SB 1553, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, a Republican from Oklahoma City, passed by a vote of 32-11. The measure would require a woman who is raped or the victim of incest to carry the child, but it would provide an exception to save the life of the mother.
The Senate also passed Senate Joint Resolution 17 by a vote of 36-9 which would ask voters to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to say life begins at conception and ban abortion-inducing drugs except to protect the life of the mother.
Another restrictive measure, Senate Bill 1167, introduced by State Sen. George Burns, would have established a government database of women seeking an abortion and provided women with “pre-abortion” resources. The bill would prohibit referral to an abortion provider and assigned women seeking an abortion a “unique identifying number” that would be kept on file for seven years. The bill was not heard in committee and won’t be heard on the Senate floor this session.
In October, the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked three anti-abortion laws that were scheduled to take effect Nov. 1, 2021, including one law that would have required all doctors who perform abortions in Oklahoma to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology, effectively cutting the number of providers in the state in half. The other two would have created new restrictions on medication-induced abortions.
Anti-abortion protesters meet with Oklahoma lawmakers every year to pass out roses in honor of the “lives lost” to abortion. Photo by Adam Kemp/PBS NewsHour
State Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, who authored three of the new anti-abortion bills this session, has made his position clear.
“It’s the reason I originally ran for office, and it’s the core of who I am. I want to end abortion in the United States and specifically in Oklahoma,” Treat said while introducing the bills in the Oklahoma Senate Health Committee. “We need to save unborn lives. It’s my desire to push it as far as we possibly can.”
But Planned Parenthood Great Plains Interim President and CEO Emily Wales stressed that these measures would not end abortion. It would instead increase the burden on people seeking abortion, especially people of color, to seek abortions out of state, which often pust their health and safety at risk by forcing them totake off work, make costly travel and childcare arrangements and drive hours to and from an abortion provider.
“The bills currently pending in the state legislature are not intended to make care safer,” Wales told the NewsHour. “The intent is clear. It’s to shame and intimidate people for accessing a safe medical procedure and to punish the doctors who provide that care.”
Texas law increases demand on Oklahoma clinics
A patient care coordinator checks the day’s schedule of abortions at Trust Women clinic in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., December 6, 2021. Picture taken December 6, 2021. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/Retuers
Oklahoma allows abortions up 20 weeks of pregnancy, which has made the state a destination for those from neighboring Texas, where state law has essentially banned the practice after six weeks of pregnancy. More than 500 patients from Texas have traveled to Oklahoma City or Tulsa for an abortion since Texas put restrictions in place, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
With only four clinics in the state performing abortions, the influx of patients from Texas is putting a strain on an already fragile system, says Rebecca Tong, co-executive director of the Trust Women Clinic in Oklahoma City.
Appointments at Trust Women are booked out two to three weeks in advance and at Planned Parenthood Clinics in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, appointments are booked out as far as a month in advance. The delay means a shorter window for abortion care.
“Our phones have not stopped ringing in the last six months,” Tong said. “We’re being forced to turn people away in desperate situations.”
Since the passage of SB8, abortion patients with a Texas zip code have made up more than half of the total number of abortion patients at Planned Parenthood health centers in Oklahoma, compared to less than 10 percent from September to December 2020. Those same centers in Oklahoma reported a nearly 2,500 percent increase in abortion patients with Texas zip codes compared to the previous year.
Meanwhile, abortions in Texas have dropped by 60 percent in the first month since SB8 became law.
“Where will all of these patients, as well as pregnant people in Oklahoma, go now?” Smith said.
Waiting outside of Planned Parenthood in Oklahoma City, Anna Artz said she has noticed the increase in Texas license plates in the parking lot.
Artz, 23, says she grew up in Texas just outside of Austin in a strict Catholic household that believed abortion was wrong and “against God’s will.” She went with members of her church to pray outside of clinics and attempt to get women entering clinics to change their minds.
But once Artz left home for college, she said she fell out with her church and shed her anti-abortion ideology. Artz now leads OKC Pro Choice, a group of advocates who volunteer outside clinics to escort patients inside and stand between them and anti-abortion demonstrators.
“We try to drown out those voices and make sure they get in there safely,” Artz said. “This is an intense moment for a lot of women, and we want them to know we stand with them and their decision. It’s their body. It’s their choice.”
Artz said she speaks with friends and family back in Texas about the chilling effect the state’s punitive laws have had. “It feels like a manhunt,” she said. “It’s appalling.”
While the increase in anti-abortion proposals concerns advocates, Smith said Oklahoma remains a critical access point as patients from Texas continue to seek care. Most of the laws are expected to be challenged in the courts and other wouldn’t be able to take effect while Roe v. Wade still stands.
A rally organized by Planned Parenthood is scheduled for April 5 at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Smith said states across the U.S. have vied to be the most hostile state against abortion and believes those punitive measures will only increase while the nation waits for the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision.
The goals of the anti-abortion movement haven’t changed, Smith said. “But the tactics have become more explicit and more extreme as their ultimate goal is within reach.”