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Okla. legislature approves bill banning abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy

On April 28, the Oklahoma House approved a bill that would outlaw most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. (Video: Reuters)
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correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the Oklahoma legislature had passed a bill banning most abortions at all stages of pregnancy and that the bill was headed to Gov. Kevin Stitt for his signature. The more restrictive bill passed the Senate on Thursday, but because a different version previously passed the House, the measure now goes back to the House for consideration. The article has been corrected.

The Oklahoma House on Thursday morning approved a Republican bill to outlaw abortions after six weeks of pregnancy that will take effect as soon as it is signed into law.

The measure would immediately cut off most abortion access in a state that has absorbed nearly half of all Texas patients who have traveled out of state for abortions since Texas enacted a similar law last fall.

The bill, which makes exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest, cleared the Oklahoma Senate in March and now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who is expected to sign it.

Hours later, the Oklahoma Senate voted for a similar bill that would go one step further, banning abortions at all stages of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape and incest in addition to medical emergencies. That bill will now return to the House, where it is widely expected to pass, before heading to the governor.

Coming ahead of a highly anticipated Supreme Court decision on abortion expected this summer, the Oklahoma measures show that states are not waiting for the high court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision enshrining abortion rights before acting to ban the procedure within their own borders.

Both bills are modeled after the restrictive Texas law, enacted last fall, that has evaded court intervention with a novel legal strategy that empowers private citizens to enforce the law.

After Texas’s 6-week abortion ban went in to effect, other Republican-led states implemented similar laws to spur test cases for challenging Roe v. Wade. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

During the Senate debate on the wider abortion ban, state Sen. Warren Hamilton (R) questioned why the bill should include an exception for ectopic pregnancies, a life-threatening condition in which the fetus grows outside the uterus. “I wonder how we square that with the idea of justice for all,” said Hamilton, who also opposed the measure’s exceptions for rape and incest.

State Sen. Mary Boren (D) argued that “the only kind of abortion this bill attempts to reduce is legal abortion in Oklahoma,” emphasizing that the legislation would force patients to travel to abortion clinics out of state or perform their own abortions. “That’s why this isn’t a pro-life bill. Jeopardizing women’s health is not pro-life.”

The sponsor of the wider ban, state Rep. Wendi Stearman (R), has said the measure “will induce compliance as no abortion provider will be willing to risk the lawsuits they would face if they violate this act.”

Several Oklahoma clinics stopped scheduling abortions in anticipation of the bills. The other clinics are prepared to cease operations at any moment.

“It has been next to impossible to plan,” said Andrea Gallegos, executive administrator at the Tulsa Women’s Clinic, an independent clinic that has pledged to continue providing abortions until Stitt signs one of the bills. “We have a fully packed schedule.”

Oklahoma lawmakers pass bill to make performing an abortion illegal, punishable by up to 10 years. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Stitt signed another abortion ban earlier this month that makes performing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But abortion rights advocates in Oklahoma see these latest Texas-style bans as a far more immediate threat than their predecessor, which is not slated to take effect until the summer. The latest abortion bans will also be harder to challenge in court, because of the novel enforcement mechanism behind the Texas ban.

Okla. lawmakers approve bill to make performing an abortion illegal

Oklahoma legislators say the flurry of antiabortion legislation is in part a reaction to the recent surge of Texas patients. Of the thousands of Texas patients who traveled out of state for abortions from September to December, 45 percent went to Oklahoma, according to a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin.

“A state of emergency exists in Oklahoma,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R), who introduced the six-week ban, referring to the number of abortions that have been performed in Oklahoma since Texas enacted its law.

“It’s sickening,” Treat said. “And that’s the reason we’re making every effort to get our laws changed.”

Several states are not waiting for a Supreme Court decision this summer. Kentucky’s two abortion clinics stopped performing abortions for a week in mid-April after Republican legislators passed a sweeping package of antiabortion restrictions that clinics said made it impossible for them to continue abortion care. That law has now been temporarily blocked by the courts.

And legislators in 13 states, including Oklahoma, have introduced their own versions of the Texas law, which could take effect regardless of the high court’s decision this summer.

Many antiabortion legislators see the Texas strategy as a promising path forward, despite widespread criticism from legal scholars who say it diminishes the power of the courts. Since September, the Supreme Court has passed up three opportunities to overturn the Texas ban, a move some Republicans have interpreted as a green light for this kind of legislation.

In Missouri, for example, state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R) said she felt newly optimistic about the prospects of the Texas-style abortion ban she had proposed after the Supreme Court announced its December decision to let the Texas law stand.

“I thought, ‘Okay, my bill has legs,’” Coleman said of her measure.

Besides Oklahoma, Idaho is the only other state that has successfully passed a Texas-style ban, though others, including Coleman’s Missouri measure, are still moving through the legislature. The Idaho law, which was slated to take effect April 22 after it was signed by Gov. Brad Little (R), has been temporarily blocked by the state Supreme Court, pending further review.

Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit Thursday in the Oklahoma state Supreme Court to block the six-week ban.

“Unless these bans are blocked, patients will be turned away, people seeking abortion will be unable to access essential care in their own communities, and their loved ones could be stopped from supporting them due to fear of being sued,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

A refuge for Texas patients, Oklahoma clinics brace for abortion ban

Still, Oklahoma abortion providers are preparing for all or most abortions to be banned for the foreseeable future. Planned Parenthood clinics in the state have already started sending some of their doctors to Kansas, where one Planned Parenthood facility will start offering surgical abortions, in addition to medication abortions.

In the past few weeks, Gallegos said, she and other staff members at the Tulsa clinic wrestled with whether to continue scheduling appointments. She is eager for their doctors to see as many patients as possible — but at the same time, she said, she dreads having to call and cancel.

Now that one of the Texas-style bills has passed both chambers, Gallegos said, she and her staff will call every patient scheduled for the next few days. While they should still come in as planned, she’ll tell them, they should know the governor could sign the bills at any time.

After that, she said, she will send patients to New Mexico or Colorado, where many clinics are already fully booked.

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