August 18, 2022

The Oklahoma Legislature gave final approval on Thursday to a bill that prohibits nearly all abortions starting at fertilization, which would make it the nation’s strictest abortion law.

The bill allows private individuals to sue abortion providers and anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion. It would take effect immediately if signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican who has pledged to make Oklahoma the most anti-abortion state in the nation.

“There can be nothing higher or more critical than the defense of innocent, unborn life,” State Representative Jim Olsen, a Republican, said on Thursday on the floor of the Oklahoma House, where the bill passed on a 73-16 vote.

The measure is modeled on a law that took effect in Texas in September, which banned abortion after about six weeks and has relied on civilian instead of criminal enforcement to work around court challenges. Because of that provision — the law explicitly says state authorities cannot bring charges — the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts have said they cannot block the ban, even if it goes against the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade.

The Oklahoma ban goes further than the Texas law, which bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy.

The bill defines an unborn child as “a human fetus or embryo in any stage of gestation from fertilization until birth.” Anti-abortion groups, believing abortion to be murder, have tried unsuccessfully since the 1973 Roe decision to pass federal or state legislation defining life as beginning at fertilization.

The vote on Thursday was the latest step by Oklahoma’s Republican-led Legislature, working alongside Mr. Stitt, to chip away at abortion rights until the procedure is all but outlawed entirely. Together, they have put their state at the head of the pack of Republican-led states rushing to pass laws that restrict or prohibit abortion in anticipation that the Supreme Court is soon likely to overturn Roe. A leaked draft opinion written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. — along with oral arguments in the case at hand, regarding a Mississippi law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy — indicated that the court was prepared to do so.

In Oklahoma, outnumbered Democrats in the State House pleaded with their colleagues not to pass the bill on Thursday. Several urged instead for Oklahoma to focus more on funding for family planning services, or on improving the lives of young Oklahomans living in poverty.

“Legislation like this, on the surface, says that we are going to end abortion in our state,” said State Representative Trish Ranson, a Democrat who voted against the bill. “The manner in which it chooses to do so is punitive, it’s speculative and it draws the worst of us together.”

The bill makes exceptions for cases of rape and incest, but only if those crimes have been reported to law enforcement.

An Oklahoma Democrat, Cyndi Munson, in an exchange on the House floor with a Republican sponsor of the bill, said that many women — especially young girls who may be victims of incest — do not report rape or incest to law enforcement.

“Can you explain to me why you’re OK with a person carrying on a pregnancy after they have been raped or there has been instances of incest?” Ms. Munson asked. “You understand what incest is, correct? You are OK with that?”

“I am OK with preserving the life of the child,” Wendi Stearman, the Republican sponsor, responded. “The child was not part of that decision.”

Abortion opponents are increasingly leaning on civilian enforcement to accomplish longstanding goals. Even if no lawsuits are filed against abortion providers, civilian enforcement laws have led to a chilling effect among abortion providers and abortion pill distributors who stop their work out of fear of being sued.

This isn’t a fire drill,” said Emily Wales, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which has operations in Oklahoma. “This is not a rehearsal for what’s to come. We are living in this real world right now. The Supreme Court will finalize that this summer.”

Other states have attempted to ban abortions throughout pregnancy, but have been stopped by court order because under the Roe decision, states cannot prohibit abortion before viability, or roughly 24 weeks. States including Mississippi have attempted ballot initiatives that define fetuses as persons, making abortion murder, but have failed.

No state currently prohibits abortion starting at fertilization. The Oklahoma legislation attempts to do so by employing a legal tactic the courts have allowed: civilian enforcement.

If signed by the governor, the Oklahoma bill would cut off another option for Texas women who had been flooding across the state border to seek legal procedures, and it seeks to punish even those from out of state who assist Oklahoma women in getting abortions.

In 2017, the last year for which statistics were available, there were 4,780 abortions in Oklahoma, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. As in most states, Oklahoma’s abortion rate had been declining. But the Texas law resulted in an influx of women crossing into Oklahoma to get abortions. Planned Parenthood said its health centers in Oklahoma saw a 2,500 percent increase in the number of patients from Texas in the first three months the law was in effect.

Oklahoma already has a trigger ban that would immediately ban abortion if the court overturns Roe, as well as a ban on abortion that has remained on the books since before the Roe decision. Two weeks ago, just after the leak of the Alito draft opinion, Mr. Stitt signed a six-week ban closely modeled on the Texas legislation. The previous month, he had signed a law that will take effect in late August, outlawing abortion entirely except to save the life of the mother. That ban imposes criminal penalties on abortion providers.

The latest bill in Oklahoma was condemned by the Biden administration as the most extreme example of legislators undoing the right to an abortion.

“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,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said in a statement, referring to the “Make America Great Again” slogan embraced by supporters of Donald J. Trump.

The six-week abortion ban had already sharply reduced the number of procedures Oklahoma abortion providers could perform. Andrea Gallegos, the executive administrator at the Tulsa Women’s Clinic, said the governor’s signature on the bill passed Thursday would make performing any abortions in the state impossible.

“These laws don’t stop abortion,” Ms. Gallegos said. “Women will still seek and get abortions. We’re just forcing the citizens of this country to have to flee their own state to access health care. It’s pretty awful.”

The effects could reverberate nationally, abortion rights supporters said.

“This signals to other states that they, too, can ban abortion,” said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute. “And for our clinic network, this disrupts access across the country.”

The Oklahoma bill would allow civilian lawsuits against anyone who helps pay for an abortion, which could implicate people across the country who have been donating to charitable organizations that help women in restrictive states get abortions elsewhere.

Those who sue successfully would be given awards of at least $10,000, and compensatory damages, including for “emotional distress.”

The bill exempts women who get abortions from lawsuits, which has been a red line that legislatures have been unwilling to cross. It does not apply to abortions necessary to save the life of the mother “in a medical emergency.”

Abortion rights supporters have argued that bills banning abortion starting at fertilization would effectively ban contraceptive methods that prevent implantation, such as an intrauterine device, but the Oklahoma bill specifies that it does not apply to contraception, including Plan B or morning-after pills.

Mr. Stitt’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the bill’s passage on Thursday.

Asked on “Fox News Sunday” how he would help women who carried out their pregnancies despite financial or other challenges that would make it difficult to raise a child, Mr. Stitt blamed the “socialist Democrat left” for attempting to abort children who would be born into poverty.

“We believe that God has a special plan for every single life and every single child,” he said, “and we want everybody to have the same opportunities in Oklahoma, and aborting a child is not the right answer.”

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