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Oklahoma governor signs bill banning abortions after ‘fertilization’

Dani Thayer (left) and Marina Lanae, both of Tulsa, demonstrate at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on April 13. (AP photo by Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) on Wednesday signed into law a measure that would ban abortions from the moment of “fertilization,” effectively prohibiting almost all abortions in the state.

The law is the strictest prohibition in the country and further changes the national landscape for abortion, as millions of people will now face the prospect of traveling hundreds of miles to undergo the procedure in the face of multiple states imposing severe limits. Oklahoma had been a refuge for some women from neighboring Texas, where a six-week ban went into effect last year.

“I promised Oklahomans that as governor I would sign every piece of pro-life legislation that came across my desk and I am proud to keep that promise today,” Stitt said in a statement Wednesday.

The governor said that he and “the majority of Oklahomans” believe that “life begins at conception,” and thus it is their responsibility to “do everything we can to protect that baby’s life and the life of the mother.”

“If other states want to pass different laws, that is their right, but in Oklahoma we will always stand up for life,” he said.

With Roe v. Wade overturned, the legality of abortion has been left to the states. Some worry that access to certain types of contraception could be next. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Stitt had previously said he wanted Oklahoma to be “the most pro-life state in the country,” and Republicans there sought to make the state the vanguard in banning abortion. Three weeks ago, Stitt signed into law a prohibition on abortions in the state for pregnancies past six weeks, but this new law now goes far beyond.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision next month on the fate of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision guaranteeing a nationwide right to abortion. In anticipation of the court overturning Roe, Republicans in dozens of states have rushed to write laws that would severely restrict abortion access or ban the procedure.

The Oklahoma law is similar in its enforcement mechanism to the one that was signed into law in Texas last year, allowing civilians to file lawsuits against those who perform or help facilitate an abortion.

Under the new law, those who could be sued include anyone who “performs or induces” an abortion; anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion,” including paying for one; and anyone who even “intends to engage” in either of the two actions above.

The new law states a lawsuit cannot be brought against a woman who had or seeks to have an abortion.

The ban took effect immediately after the governor signed the measure because it is modeled after the restrictive Texas law that has evaded court intervention with a novel legal strategy that empowers private citizens to enforce the law. The Supreme Court and other courts have said they cannot block those bans even though they are at odds with Roe.

The latest action on abortion legislation across the states

The law defines “fertilization” as the moment a sperm meets the egg. It explicitly allows for the use of the Plan B pill, a widely used form of emergency contraception, but would prohibit medical abortions using pills. The measure exempts from its definition of abortion any procedure to “save the life or preserve the health of the unborn child,” to “remove a dead unborn child caused by spontaneous abortion” or to remove an ectopic pregnancy, in which the fetus grows outside the uterus.

The law makes exceptions for abortion if it is “necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency” or if the pregnancy is the result of rape, sexual assault or incest that has been reported to law enforcement.

The law passed the Oklahoma House on a 73-to-16 vote last week after impassioned debate.

“There is no higher principle than the protection of innocent life,” Oklahoma state Rep. Jim Olsen (R) said during floor debate. “Innocent, unborn life. There can be no higher cause that we as a body can address.”

Rep. Monroe Nichols (D) responded that “there is another innocent life that we should also be thinking about” — the life of the pregnant person who is facing the decision of whether to have an abortion.

“I think we can’t lose that because of our aversion to something that we believe to be evil,” Nichols said, adding that the legislation would essentially put people who have abortions “on trial.”

Rep. Wendi Stearman (R), the bill’s sponsor, hailed passage of the measure, which heads to Stitt and would go into effect immediately if he signs it into law.

“It is my sincere hope that, in addition to the criminal bill passed this session, this civil liability bill will provide strong, additional protection of the life of unborn children in Oklahoma,” Stearman said in a news release.

The vote came around the time Vice President Harris was holding a virtual meeting with abortion providers about reproductive rights. Harris condemned the Oklahoma ban, calling it “one of the most extreme abortion bans in the country — a ban that would outlaw abortion from the moment of fertilization.”

“Now, think about that for a second: from the moment of fertilization,” Harris said. “It’s outrageous, and it’s just the latest in a series of extreme laws around the country.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre last week called the Oklahoma ban “the most extreme effort” so far to undo the constitutional right to abortion. President Biden “is committed to standing up for these constitutional rights, and for protecting Americans’ fundamental freedoms,” she said.

“This is part of a growing effort by ultra MAGA officials across the country to roll back the freedoms we should not take for granted in this country,” Jean-Pierre said of the Oklahoma ban. “They are starting with reproductive rights, but the American people need to know that other fundamental rights, including the right to contraception and marriage equality, are at risk.”

Soon after the House vote last week, Planned Parenthood vowed to take Oklahoma to court over the legislation, saying the ban “must be stopped.”

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