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Empty clinics, no calls: The fallout of Oklahoma’s abortion ban

As nation awaits a Supreme Court decision, one conservative state offers a window into a post-Roe America

Supervising nurse Tiffany Taylor stands in an empty reception at the Tulsa Women's Clinic. (Michael Noble Jr. for The Washington Post)

Whenever a new patient pulls into the parking lot at the Tulsa Women’s Clinic, Tiffany Taylor rushes to flick on the lights. She turns off her indie folk playlist, looks out at the empty waiting room and prepares to deliver a speech she has recited about a dozen times since the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill last month banning abortions from the moment of fertilization.

“I’m so sorry,” the nurse says to anyone who wanders in, asking about abortion. “But there’s this new law.”

Oklahoma late last month became the first state in the country to successfully outlaw abortion, offering a glimpse of a post-Roe v. Wade America even while the landmark Supreme Court precedent still stands.

Just months ago, Oklahoma’s four abortion clinics were working overtime, scheduling record numbers of appointments as patients from Texas — where abortion has been severely restricted since the fall — streamed across the border. Now the clinics are desolate. Nurses are filing paperwork and watching Netflix. At Trust Women, a clinic in Oklahoma City that used to get 500 calls a day, staff say the phone has stopped ringing.

Oklahoma’s sweeping new law is the latest of several similar abortion bans signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) this year, with Republicans eager to prepare a menu of laws that could take effect no matter how the Supreme Court rules in a highly anticipated decision expected this summer that will determine the fate of abortion rights.

The events unfolding in the conservative bastion of Oklahoma reflect a sort of legal nirvana for the antiabortion movement, whose leaders see the potential demise of Roe as a path to shuttering abortion clinics across roughly half of the country. As state Rep. Todd Russ (R), one of the leading antiabortion members in the legislature, put it in a recent interview: “We won the tournament, you might say.”

The state’s ban prohibiting abortion after fertilization, which includes exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies, relies on the novel legal strategy that has allowed the Texas abortion ban to sidestep the courts, empowering private citizens to enforce the law through civil litigation.

The untold story of the Texas abortion ban

Abortion rights groups have challenged the ban in court. But even if the measure were blocked, providers may still have to reckon with fallout from the upcoming Supreme Court ruling. If a majority of justices vote to overturn Roe, as has been widely expected since a leaked draft opinion circulated last month, Oklahoma and 12 other states will enact “trigger” laws, immediately banning the procedure with no chance of court intervention.

The Tulsa Women’s Clinic performed nearly 5,000 abortions last year. As Taylor looks down the dark hallways, she wonders if they will ever do another one.

“We’re all just holding our breath,” she said, “waiting for Roe.”

***

Throughout the spring, as several abortion bans made their way through the Oklahoma legislature, abortion providers across the state debated how long they should continue providing care.

The clinics were particularly worried about two bills that used the Texas-style enforcement mechanism: a ban from fertilization and a ban that outlawed abortion around six weeks of pregnancy, nearly identical to the one in Texas. Both were slated to take effect with the governor’s signature — meaning that after the bills passed the legislature, they could activate at any time.

The six-week ban passed first, in late April. By that point, several clinics had already stopped performing abortions, sending patients to clinics in Kansas.

The Tulsa Women’s Clinic continued providing its full range of services until May 3, five days after the six-week ban passed the legislature, when their attorneys said it was finally time to start making the calls that Andrea Gallegos, the clinic’s executive administrator, had been dreading for months.

The first patient Gallegos called was already halfway to Tulsa from Texas. She and her husband had taken off work, arranged child care and rented a car.

“What do you mean?” the husband said when Gallegos delivered the news. “Our appointment is tomorrow.”

“Please,” she remembers him saying. “You’ve got to help us.”

Gallegos called 60 patients that night.

The ban after fertilization passed the legislature less than three weeks later. By that point, Gallegos said, patient traffic had plummeted. The Texas patients who had flocked to Oklahoma now had to drive to New Mexico, Colorado or Kansas, where clinics were already swamped, she said, scheduling appointments two to three weeks out.

With the six-week ban in place, and a trigger ban waiting in the wings, Gallegos had hoped the legislature might let the total ban go.

“They’d just passed the six-week ban, and probably in a month or so, Roe will fall,” she said. “I was like, ‘Isn’t that enough?’ ”

Oklahoma governor signs bill banning abortions after ‘fertilization’

In Oklahoma City, lawmakers saw value in adding the most sweeping possible ban to Oklahoma’s catalogue of abortion restrictions, Russ said. When the Supreme Court rules, Russ said, they wanted to be ready with a variety of options. Plus, he said, in a conservative state like Oklahoma, you don’t want to be seen voting against an abortion bill.

Russ and his colleagues will often say, “If this saves one life, why would you not do it?”

Russ said lawmakers will concentrate on helping crisis pregnancy centers, organizations that try to persuade people to carry their pregnancies to term and that antiabortion advocates say will offer support for mothers.

Abortion clinic leaders in Oklahoma said they expect crisis pregnancy centers to expand.

Trust Women is determined to stay open even if they can’t provide abortions, said Zack Gingrich-Gaylord, the clinic’s communications director — in part because they don’t want to see a crisis pregnancy center move into their building.

“Sticking around,” he said, is an “act of defiance.”

Before Texas enacted its abortion law, Trust Women offered other reproductive health care in addition to abortions, including birth control, STD testing and gender-affirming care, Gingrich-Gaylord said. If they are no longer able to provide abortions, he said, he imagines they’ll focus on those services, while their abortion providers shift over to the clinic’s other location in Kansas.

Draft opinion jolts abortion clinics, lawmakers to prepare for end of Roe

Abortion funds will play a crucial role in helping patients get to those other states, said Sam Robertson, who sits on the board of directors at the Roe Fund, a group that helps pay for abortion procedures in Oklahoma. When the two recent bans took effect, Robertson said, the organization quickly realized it had to expand beyond procedure funding and help patients with travel costs so that they could leave the state.

But the organization doesn’t have the infrastructure for that yet. Until now, Robertson said, the Roe Fund received all of its referrals from abortion providers and gave money directly to clinics. If patients can’t go to Oklahoma clinics, she said, the fund will have a hard time finding people to help.

“We are fully starting from scratch,” she said.

The Tulsa Women’s Clinic has considered staying open just to provide patients with sonograms and referrals to abortion clinics in other states, Gallegos said. But financially, she added, that’s probably not feasible.

The clinic is now considering a move to a Democrat-run state, hundreds of miles from Oklahoma.

***

Even without patients, protesters still show up outside the Tulsa Women’s Clinic. Taylor rarely talks to them, but on a recent morning, she said, she couldn’t help it.

“You guys got what you wanted,” she yelled. “Why are you even here?”

They offered to help her find a new job.

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, Taylor has no doubt the clinic will close. She’ll probably be the one to clean out the offices and auction off everything worth selling — the ultrasound machines and recovery chairs. Then she’ll walk through the empty rooms, one by one.

When she finally locks the door for the last time, she said, she hopes the protesters won’t be there to see it.

The words politicians use to talk about abortion have shifted away from medical significance and shaped the way we think about the procedure. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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