OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma on Wednesday implemented the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation, giving the country a preview of a possible post-Roe future.
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation to prohibit most abortions beginning at fertilization.
Stitt signed House Bill 4327 that allows private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” a woman seeking an abortion at any point in her pregnancy. The woman pursuing the procedure could not be sued.
In a statement, Stitt said he was proud to sign the legislation.
“From the moment life begins at conception is when we have a responsibility as human beings to do everything we can to protect that baby’s life and the life of the mother,” Stitt said.
The law that took effect immediately and openly flouts longstanding abortion protections established by the U.S. Supreme Court has limited exceptions for medical emergencies, rape and incest.
Under the law from Rep. Wendi Stearman, R-Collinsville, Oklahoma will become the first state in the nation where nearly all abortions are prohibited. In 2021, 5,950 abortions were performed in the state.
Representatives from Oklahoma’s four abortion clinics said they would stop, if they had not already, terminating pregnancies immediately upon HB 4327 taking effect.
“Today, for the first time in nearly 50 years, abortion is illegal – at every stage of pregnancy – in an American state,” said Emily Wales, interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “People who can become pregnant now have fewer rights and fewer protections in Oklahoma than in any other state in the union.
“Legislators who, in overwhelming numbers, cannot become pregnant have just made lesser citizens of those who can.”
Abortion rights groups plan to sue
Abortion providers and reproductive rights groups have vowed to challenge the law in court where they are suing over two other anti-abortion laws Stitt signed this year.
Center for Reproductive Rights Senior Legal Counsel Rabia Muqaddam said providers will ask the Oklahoma Supreme Court to issue a temporary injunction to halt enforcement of the “blatantly unconstitutional” law.
“We are facing a period of time where abortion will be inaccessible .. and it’s just unspeakable that anyone would pass a law to circumvent constitutional rights,” she said last week.
But Texas-style abortion bans have proved difficult to stop in the courts, namely because of the civil enforcement piece that makes the laws so unique.
With the U.S. Supreme Court indicating it is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, providers are preparing for abortion access to become a patchwork of regulations across the nation with conservative states like Oklahoma mostly outlawing the procedure.
Oklahoma became a refuge for many Texans seeking an abortion after the Lone Star State implemented a six-week ban in September.
Now, many Oklahomans will have to travel out of state for the procedure and Texans may have to travel even farther, said Wales, of Planned Parenthood Great Plains.
For some, travel simply won’t be possible, she said.
“Telling people now, ‘can you get to Kansas City? Can you get to Denver?’ That is going to be overwhelming to many of the people we serve, and the impact on their lives is indescribable because this care is time sensitive and critical for a reason,” Wales said. “The impact will be real and felt immediately by the people we serve.”
Oklahomans overwhelmingly support life, Gov. Kevin Stitt says
Before taking office, Stitt vowed to sign all anti-abortion bills that advanced to his desk — a promise he has kept.
“I represent all 4 million Oklahomans, and the majority overwhelmingly support life in our state.” Stitt said in a recent interview.
December polling from an Oklahoma City firm shows less than one-third of Oklahomans want a total ban on abortion.
Stitt said anti-abortion bills pass with overwhelmingly support from the Oklahoma Legislature, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
He also noted the state is investing in resources for pregnant women through the Oklahoma Health Department, nonprofits and churches.
“We want to be the No. 1 state in supporting crisis pregnancies” Stitt said. “We want to love the mother, we want to love the child, we want to have adoption services.”
New Oklahoma abortion ban includes limited exceptions
The law makes an exception for abortions necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman experiencing a medical emergency.
However, some doctors have said that exception is vague and unclear.
Physicians will have to decide how sick a woman must get before they intervene, all with the threat of a possible lawsuit hanging over their heads, said Oklahoma City OB-GYN Dr. Dana Stone.
The law is unlikely to stop abortion, it will just force women to seek out unsafe abortions. It’s “disturbing’ to think about some of the risks women might take to end an unwanted pregnancy, she said.
Stone also expects the law will worsen Oklahoma’s high maternal mortality rates.
“We have a high maternal mortality rate in the United States, higher than other developed countries by far,” she said. “Oklahoma has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in our country, and I think this is just going to be very dangerous for women.”
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who opposes abortion, dismissed concerns that the law creates uncertainty for physicians.
“Medical doctors are still empowered to make that decision on what constitutes a risk to the life of the mother,” he said.
“All of our rights end when we do harm to someone else, and we believe strongly that that life of the unborn child is another life that deserves protection.”
The law also includes an exception for victims of rape and incest if they report the crime to law enforcement.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said it’s not a legitimate exception because the majority of rape and sexual assault victims don’t go to law enforcement for help.
“The odds of a sexual assault victim, a rape victim going straight to law enforcement is low,” she said. “It’s not realistic. That’s not how it works out in the real world. Medical attention is often the first thing that they seek.”
Oklahoma also has a “trigger” law on the books that would take effect if the nation’s high court overturns longstanding abortion protections.
The “trigger” law would take effect if the court overturns Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but new anti-abortion legislation may be needed if the court doesn’t go that far, he said.
“Depending on what that decision actually says, we may have to come in and act accordingly,” Treat said. “If it’s as (the opinion) was leaked, we’re in extremely good shape.”
The Legislature could add anti-abortion issues to the special session agenda if the idea gets support from two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers.