As Oklahoma lawmakers usher in some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, a case heading to the U.S. Supreme Court could have far-reaching effects in Oklahoma.
Justices aren’t expected to make a decision on the case until next year, but activists and advocates on both sides of the abortion divide worry — or hope — the case could signficantly curtail reproductive rights across the country.
Gov. Kevin Stitt this year has signed more anti-abortion bills into law in a single session than a governor has in at least the last five years.
Stitt so far has signed into law four bills aimed to restrict abortion in the state, and two more could land on his desk before the session ends. He’s promised to sign every piece of anti-abortion legistlation that heads his way.
“I am proud to be called the most pro-life governor,” Stitt wrote in a Facebook post last month.
Stitt’s signing of the bills comes as the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear a challenge to a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, well before a fetus is considered viable outside a womb under current legal standards. The case could challenge a precedent set under the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade opinion and lead to a major roll back of abortion rights.
It’s the first major abortion rights case that’s been heard since the court shifted to a 6-3 conservative supermajority.
The case could have serious implications for Oklahoma, as Stitt recently signed into law a so-call “trigger” bill that would automatically outlaw abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Stitt also signed into law bills that would ban abortions as early as six weeks, require doctors who perform abortions to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology and add performing an abortion to the list of unprofessional conduct by doctors under Oklahoma law.
Under the law that would ban abortions as early as six weeks — before many women know they’re pregnant — providers who performed the procedure would be guilty of homicide. Though the measures include some exceptions for medical emergencies, there are none for cases where someone becomes pregnant through rape or incest. The laws go into effect Nov. 1.
Abortion rights advocates have promised to challenge the laws in court.
The Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, which opposes abortion, said it’s encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the Mississippi law and that Stitt has signed every anti-abortion measure that’s reached his desk.
Last year, Stitt signed into law the “Unborn Person Wrongful Death Act,” which makes it easier for people to sue physicians who perform abortions.
“He’s been very outspoken on the issue in terms of his pro-life convictions,” said Brett Farley, the organization’s executive director.
Tamya Cox-Touré is the executive director of ACLU of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice. She said the Mississippi case, which the court is expected to hear in the fall, wouldn’t change the ACLU’s litigation strategy if it decides to sue Oklahoma over its new anti-abortion measures.
Cox-Touré said governors are signing into law anti-abortion measures at a pace not seen since 2009. Though the impending Mississippi case is concerning, she said, abortion access is already out of reach for many Oklahomans because of a lack of providers and existing restrictions surrounding the procedure. The laws disproportionately affect minority and low-income women.
“We believe that it would be devastating if Roe v. Wade or Casey v. Planned Parenthood were ever overturned, but we know many Oklahomans are living that outcome right now because of lack of access,” Cox-Touré said.
In Oklahoma, which has some of the strictest regulations on abortion in the U.S., women must first receive a sonogram and wait at least 72 hours before the procedure. Most abortions in Oklahoma are banned after 20 weeks.
In 2019, more than 73 percent of abortions reported in the state were performed before eight weeks gestation, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. From 2006 to 2019, the number of procedures reported in the state fell by 35 percent.
Abortion rights advocates have raised concerns about the law that would require doctors who perform abortions to be certified in obstetric and gynecology. More than half of Oklahoma’s counties are considered maternity care deserts with no access to obstetric providers, according March of Dimes.
In 2017, there were four clinics in Oklahoma providing abortions, located in only three of the state’s 77 counties. Trust Women in Oklahoma City is the only clinic in the state that performs the procedure past 18 weeks. Julie Burkhart, the clinic’s founder, said although the providers there are trained in abortion care, about half of them are not board certified in obstetrics and gynecology.
“We are definitely up against a lot,” Burkhart said.
Burkhart said the clinic sees people from all corners of the state. The cost of an abortion, along with travel, accommodations and sometimes childcare, can add additional barriers.
Oklahoma is among the top three states in the nation for the number of abortion restrictions enacted since 1973, said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a national research and policy organization that supports abortion rights.
“Oklahoma is a state where there’s limited access, many restrictions and the legislature routinely tries to eliminate access to abortion,” Nash said. “So it is a state that is one of the most hostile states in the country for abortion rights.”
The threat to reproductive rights has escalated with the number of bills signed into law and the impending U.S. Supreme Court case, said Mandy Culbertson, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Great Plains.
“I think it’s fair to say that this is the deepest threat to Roe that we’ve seen in a long time,” Culbertson said.