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The Oklahoma legislature’s near-total ban on abortion, explained

Republican lawmakers passed a bill subjecting abortion providers to criminal penalties in most cases.

A procedure room at Planned Parenthood in Meridian, Idaho.
Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The Republican-led Oklahoma state House has passed a near-total ban on abortion except in cases where the pregnant person’s life is endangered.

Under the bill, anyone who performs an abortion would face up to 10 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines. The bill, first passed by the Oklahoma Senate last year, was suddenly revived Tuesday without explanation from Republican lawmakers.

It will now head to Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has committed to signing any anti-abortion legislation that comes across his desk and has previously described himself as America’s “most pro-life governor.”

The ban would go into effect 90 days after the state legislature adjourns at the end of May unless courts intervene. Reproductive rights groups are expected to file legal challenges to the ban, which they believe is unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade recognized a pregnant person’s fundamental right to seek an abortion, but found that states could still impose restrictions on the procedure in the service of protecting the pregnant person’s health and the potential life of a fetus once it can survive outside the womb.

These legal challenges might be successful given that the bill is similar to other Oklahoma laws recently struck down by the state supreme court, including laws that restrict medication abortion, suspend the licenses of physicians who provide abortions, and ban abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy. But if the US Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, as it is widely expected to, the new ban could survive.

“With barely any notice, the Oklahoma Legislature resurrected a bill that is patently unconstitutional and flies in the face of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s clear precedent,” Rabia Muqaddam, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “The Oklahoma Supreme Court has found time and time again that the state’s attempts to restrict abortion are unconstitutional, as this total abortion ban clearly is.”

The bill’s passage came as a surprise to abortion rights advocates in the state, who saw it as a political statement in response to their “Bans Off Oklahoma” rally at the state capitol on Tuesday. The measure was put on the agenda on Tuesday, fairly late in the legislative session, and passed that same day with little time for debate.

“This bill kind of came out of nowhere,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “This was a direct reflection of the fact that 350 people gathered to demand that abortion access is protected. And this was their retaliation.”

For the few remaining abortion providers in Oklahoma, the bill would be catastrophic. There are just four such facilities across the entire state, which have seen soaring demand since last September, when neighboring Texas enacted a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Trust Women — which operates a clinic in Oklahoma City that provides medication and surgical abortions up to the current legal limit of 21.6 weeks — has seen a 2,500 percent increase in patients. Even though the clinic has doubled the number of days of the week that it’s open from two to four, patients still may have to wait two to four weeks for an abortion, sometimes forcing them to travel to other states if that puts them over the time period within which it’s legal to have an abortion in Oklahoma.

“It’s been nonstop. We are now seeing mostly out-of-state patients,” said Myfy Jensen-Fellows, Trust Women’s advocacy director. “This impacts the entire region.”

It’s not the last anti-abortion measure being considered in this session of the Oklahoma legislature. The state senate has already passed the so-called Oklahoma Heartbeat Act, which is a copycat of a Texas ban allowing any private individual to sue doctors who perform abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected (typically about six weeks into term) except in the case of a medical emergency. The state House will debate that bill in committee on Wednesday.