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Wednesday August 10th, 2022 7:32PM

Oklahoma passes strictest abortion ban; services to stop

By The Associated Press
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill prohibiting all abortions with few exceptions, and providers said they would stop performing the procedure as soon as the governor signs it in the latest example of the GOP’s national push to restrict access to what has been a constitutional right for nearly a half century.

Oklahoma lawmakers this year already passed a half-dozen anti-abortion measures, and while abortion providers across the country have been bracing for the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court's new conservative majority might further restrict the practice, that has especially been the case in Oklahoma and Texas.

Two of Oklahoma's four abortion clinics already stopped providing abortions after the governor signed a six-week ban earlier this month, and an attorney for the two other independent clinics said Thursday they will no longer offer services once the bill is signed. The bill is likely to reach Gov. Kevin Stitt's desk early next week, and the first-term Republican running for reelection has already said he would sign any anti-abortion bill the Legislature sends to him. It would take effect immediately after he signs it.

“This bill could go into effect at any time, and once it does, any person can sue the clinic, the doctors, anyone else who is involved in providing an abortion in Oklahoma," said Rabia Muqaddam, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing Oklahoma clinics in legal challenges against several proposed new anti-abortion laws.

The bills are part of an aggressive push in Republican-led states across the country to scale back abortion rights. It comes on the heels of a leaked draft opinion from the nation's high court that suggests justices are considering weakening or overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nearly 50 years ago.

The bill by Collinsville Republican Rep. Wendi Stearman would prohibit all abortions, except to save the life of a pregnant woman or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest that has been reported to law enforcement.

“Is our goal to defend the right to life or isn't it?" Stearman asked her colleagues before the bill passed on a 73-16 vote, mostly along party lines.

The bill specifically authorizes doctors to remove a “dead unborn child caused by spontaneous abortion," or miscarriage, or to remove an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening emergency that occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, often in a fallopian tube and early in pregnancy.

With all of the state's abortion clinics expected to stop offering services, it's not clear where a woman who qualified under one of these exemptions would go to get an abortion because providers say many doctors would be afraid of running afoul of the law.

The bill also does not apply to the use of Plan B, other morning-after pills or any type of contraception.

Because the bill defines an “unborn child" as a human fetus or embryo in any stage of gestation from fertilization until birth, it is not expected to apply to in vitro fertilization, which is when eggs are fertilized in a lab before being transferred into a woman's uterus, said Dr. Eli Reshef, an Oklahoma City fertility specialist.

“(The bill) does not criminalize what we do," Reshef said. “No matter one's position on abortion, we are not concerned about the bill harming our particular profession."

The bill is one of at least three anti-abortion bills sent this year to Stitt. Another abortion bill similar to a Texas bill passed last year that prohibits the procedure after cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo, which experts say is about six weeks, already has taken effect and has already dramatically curtailed the practice in Oklahoma. Another bill set to take effect this summer would make it a felony to perform an abortion, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That bill contains no exceptions for rape or incest.

“At this point, we are preparing for the most restrictive environment politicians can create: a complete ban on abortion with likely no exceptions," said Emily Wales, interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which stopped providing abortions at two of its Oklahoma clinics after the six-week ban took effect earlier this month. “It’s the worst-case scenario for abortion care in the state of Oklahoma."

Like the Texas law, the Oklahoma bill would allow private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion. After the U.S. Supreme Court allowed that mechanism to remain in place, other Republican-led states sought to copy Texas’ ban. Idaho’s governor signed the first copycat measure in March, although it has been temporarily blocked by the state’s Supreme Court.

After Texas passed its bill last year, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of abortions performed in that state, with many women going to Oklahoma and other surrounding states for the procedure.

There are legal challenges pending in Oklahoma to both the bill to criminalize abortion and the six-week Texas ban, both of which could still be halted, but the courts have so far failed to do so.

The number of abortions performed each year in Oklahoma has declined steadily over the last two decades, from more than 6,200 in 2002 to 3,737 in 2020, the fewest in more than 20 years, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. In 2020, before the Texas law was passed, about 9% of the abortions performed in Oklahoma were women from Texas.

In the first four months after Texas’ law took effect last September, abortions at clinics in the state dropped an average of 46% compared to the same span the year prior. But studies also found a sharp increase in the number of Texas women who were ordering abortion pills by mail and traveling out of state for abortions.

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