Oklahoma abortion ban will affect patients in Texas as restrictions continue to spread

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Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor made clear the state is passing abortion bans because it believes Roe v. Wade will be overturned.

Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt on April 12 signed into law SB 612, a near-complete ban on abortion in the state. Should the measure stand, as of August 2022, people will be unable to get an abortion in the state except to save the life of the pregnant person in the case of a "medical emergency." Oklahoma is the latest of a number of states that have instituted bans testing the limits of abortion law while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to uphold Mississippi's 15-week ban, which, as a prohibition that kicks in prior to a fetus' ability to survive outside the uterus, is unconstitutional under current law. 

Oklahoma's law contains no exceptions for rape or incest. It criminalizes the performance of the procedure, making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Observers note that such drastic criminal penalties may chill the willingness of doctors to perform abortions even in the case of an emergency. As political writer Bess Levin at Vanity Fair has pointed out, politicians have displayed an alarming amount of scientific illiteracy about pregnancy, insisting, for example, that ectopic pregnancies can be moved to the uterus. This creates the possibility that a doctor's decision about a medical emergency could be second-guessed.

Oklahoma has another ban teed up that copies the private enforcement mechanism of Texas' SB 8, which imposes a six-week ban and allows private citizens to sue anyone who "aids or abets" a person in obtaining an abortion. The Oklahoma House passed that bill, and it is now headed to the state Senate. Stitt has said, "I promised Oklahomans that I would sign every pro-life bill that hit my desk," so the state will likely see two complete bans: one that imposes criminal penalties and one that lets private citizens enforce the law in civil court. 

The state attorney general, Republican John O'Connor, made clear the state is passing these laws because it believes Roe v. Wade will be overturned: According to NPR, O'Connor said, "The states should have the right to make that decision, and that's what we're hoping the U.S. Supreme Court does, is return it to the states and the people."

While Republican politicians in the state are busy making abortion unavailable, the well-being of pregnant people and infants in the state continues to suffer. The most recent report card from the March of Dimes, which tracks maternal and infant health across the country, gave the state a D-. Oklahoma's infant mortality rate, preterm birth rate, and incidence of inadequate prenatal care are all higher than the national average. 

The state's own department of health reports, "Oklahoma persistently ranks among the states with the worst rates of maternal deaths in the U.S." The most recent state report found that Oklahoma had the fourth-worst rate of maternal deaths in the country, with 30.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 people. That's nearly 60% higher than the national average of 17.4 per 100,000. The statistics are even grimmer for Black people who give birth, who are almost three times more likely to die during pregnancy or shortly after than their white counterparts. 

Banning abortion doesn't fix any of those things. Indeed, a May 2021 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that restricting or banning abortion can increase the risk of maternal mortality. The study found that as restrictions on abortion increased, so did the rate of maternal mortality. States that restrict public funding for abortion have a much higher maternal mortality rate than those that do not, as do states that prohibit anyone but a licensed physician from performing the procedure. Both of those things are the case in Oklahoma.

Banning abortion in Oklahoma doesn't just affect residents of Oklahoma. 

The state has become a destination for Texans seeking abortions since the procedure has become widely unavailable there under that state's six-week ban. Within a few weeks of Texas' law taking effect on Sept. 1, 2021, one Oklahoma abortion clinic reported that fully two-thirds of its patients were from Texas.

That trend has continued. The Texas Policy Evaluation Project, housed at the University of Texas at Austin, has been tracking the effects of the Texas law and has found that roughly 1,400 people per month have traveled out of state to get an abortion since SB 8 became law. Nearly half of those people went to Oklahoma for the procedure. 

Now Oklahoma's actions threaten the ability of Texans to obtain abortions, a prime example of just how fragile abortion access is. As adjoining states pass restrictive laws, people will be forced to travel farther and farther, spending more and more money, to have the procedure. Texans are already experiencing increased economic hardship and limited availability of out-of-state appointments. If Oklahoma's ban isn't overturned, soon Oklahomans will as well. 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.