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The Oklahoma Legislature passed a law Tuesday that makes performing an abortion in the state a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The governor is expected to sign the bill into law, and it would go into effect this summer.
Once in place, the law would have major regional impacts. More Texans have sought abortions in Oklahoma than in any other state since a Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy went into effect Sept. 1.
“Oklahoma is going from a state where we’ve been a haven for refugees who’ve needed support to a state that has chosen to make refugees of its own citizens,” said Emily Wales, the interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates clinics in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.
Oklahoma has been scrambling to keep up with the deluge of patients from Texas for more than seven months. The state’s four providers have extended hours, hired additional staff and worked long shifts to absorb more than 600 additional patients a month.
But now, these providers are facing the opposite problem: not a deluge, but a drought, as the state follows its neighbor’s lead in limiting abortion access.
Before the ban
On a recent Wednesday morning, the Trust Women abortion clinic in Oklahoma City got more than 200 phone calls in just two hours. People were calling, again and again, trying to get through to someone so they could book an appointment for an abortion several weeks out.
“There wasn’t anything special happening that Wednesday,” said communications director Zack Gingrich-Gaylord. “That has just been the case every day since Aug. 31.”
Oklahoma’s four abortion clinics — two in Tulsa and two in Oklahoma City — have absorbed more Texas patients than any other state. Nearly half of all Texans who got abortions out of state between September and December went to Oklahoma, according to a study from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Oklahoma’s population is a fraction of the size of Texas’, and the state has historically provided a fraction of the abortions — roughly 5,000 procedures in 2019, compared with more than 56,000 in Texas.
To accommodate more than 600 additional procedures a month, the Oklahoma clinics have had to scale up — and scale back. Trust Women has stopped providing other health care services to focus more fully on abortion care, doubling clinic days and adding half a dozen doctors between its two clinics.
The clinics are seeing more patients later in pregnancy because of weekslong waiting lists. And still, they’re having to turn a lot of patients away, creating a regional ripple effect as patients from Oklahoma are pushed into Kansas and Illinois.
“The capacity of these states is not enough for their own state, let alone to be able to absorb … Texas’s needs, even if you split them up,” Gingrich-Gaylord said. “And again, people shouldn’t have to leave their own communities for health care.”
At Planned Parenthood’s two Oklahoma clinics, Texas patients made up 60% of the caseload between September and January, compared with just 10% during that same period in 2020, according to a spokesperson.
Oklahoma’s existing abortion restrictions also made it a somewhat more convenient option for Texans seeking care. The state has a 72-hour waiting period, but unlike in neighboring Arkansas, the first visit does not need to be in person.
If Oklahoma’s new abortion ban becomes law, Texans will have to either travel further or stay longer — or carry the pregnancy to term.
“It’s incredibly difficult for people to travel out of state [for an abortion] already,” said Cristina Parker with the Lilith Fund, a nonprofit that helps Texans pay for abortions. “Having anything happen in a neighboring state that would cut off that access even more just makes every single one of those barriers a little bit more intense.”
In the first few months of this year, about a third of the Lilith Fund’s clients went to Oklahoma for care.
“For someone who can’t just dip into a savings account, who can’t schedule paid time off, who has to find child care,” Parker said, “it’s not an option to go further, spend more and be away from home longer.”
The Oklahoma House of Representatives recently passed a bill that banned abortions by empowering private citizens to bring lawsuits against anyone who “aided or abetted” in an abortion. The bill is in front of the Senate and contained an emergency provision that allowed it to go into effect as soon as the governor signed it.
But in a surprise move Tuesday, the House passed a different bill, making it a felony for doctors to provide abortions. The bill already passed the Senate last year, and it now goes to Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt. According to the Associated Press, Stitt has said he will sign any anti-abortion bill that comes to his desk.
The law, which is expected to go into effect this summer, would likely be found to violate the abortion protections enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. But the high court is expected to rule this summer on a Mississippi case that could overturn both of those cases, allowing laws like Oklahoma's to withstand court challenge.
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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