The Oklahoma House of Representatives shocked the nation last night when they approved a bill that would severely restrict access to abortions across the state. The measure known as Senate Bill 612 passed through the house with little debate on a 70-14 vote, catching many representatives off guard. The bill passed the State Senate late last year and is now headed to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) for final passage. The governor said he would sign any anti-abortion measure that reaches his desk, which means this legislation is all but guaranteed to become law this summer when the state legislature adjourns.
The law would make any abortion performed in the state a felony. Those convicted would face up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. There is an exception if the life of the mother is in danger, but the law doesn’t include protections for cases of rape or incest.
Abortion providers and pro-choice advocates were outraged with the decision, but there’s not much they can do to reverse the law until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.
Deferring to the High Court
Several states, including Oklahoma, have tried to pass near total abortion bans in the past, but they were all blocked by the courts because of the precedent set by the landmark case Roe v. Wade in 1972, which guarantees a fundamental right to abortion.
But this bill stands a much better chance of becoming law. The dynamic of the Supreme Court has changed. There is now a 6-3 conservative majority, and the court could strike down Roe v. Wade later this year when it rules on a Mississippi case that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
For years, the Supreme Court refused to take up matters of abortion, but the justices are now willing to weigh in the matter.
The Oklahoma bill could go into effect around the same time the Supreme Court rules on the Mississippi case, which could make it harder to repeal anti-abortion laws in court.
Several Republican-led states are using the opportunity to pass abortion restrictions of their own. The Supreme Court has refused to block a controversial anti-abortion law in Texas three times since it went into effect in September of last year. The Texas law bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant. Instead of having the government enforce the law, it gives private civilians the power to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion in court.
A Desert for Abortions
Texans have had to travel outside of the state to access abortions for months since the law went into effect last year. Abortion providers in Oklahoma have been trying to fill in the gaps.
Oklahoma providers have treated approximately 45% of Texas patients who have left the state for abortions, more than any other state, according to a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin.
Once the new law goes into effect, Texans will no longer be able to travel to Oklahoma for reproductive care. This will force pregnant women to travel further when seeking an abortion. Many will need to go to neighboring Kansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana.
The number of people traveling to Oklahoma for abortions likely contributed to the bill’s passage in the House.
“A state of emergency exists in Oklahoma,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R), over the number of abortions that have been performed in Oklahoma in recent months. “It’s sickening.”
News of the bill’s passage caught many Oklahoma abortion providers by surprise. Many of them had no idea that the bill had even passed.
“Are you serious?” asked Andrea Gallegos, an administrator for Tulsa Women’s Clinic, one of the four abortion providers in the state. “Oh, my gosh.”
Trust Women, one of the busiest abortion clinics in the state, has seen a 2,500% increase in the number of patients since the Texas law passed. The clinic has since doubled the number of days that it’s open, but women still have to wait two to four weeks for an appointment.
“It’s been nonstop. We are now seeing mostly out-of-state patients,” said Myfy Jensen-Fellows, Trust Women’s advocacy director. “This impacts the entire region.”
Despite the latest setback, pro-choice advocates will try to repeal the law in court. They organized a rally called “Bans Off Our Bodies” outside of the state capital just as the House passed the bill.
“They gaveled the bill into session and voted on it in the time it took to set up our rally,” said Olivia Cappello, press officer for state media campaigns at Planned Parenthood.
“This bill kind of came out of nowhere,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “This was a direct reflection of the fact that 350 people gathered to demand that abortion access is protected. And this was their retaliation.”