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Oklahoma abortion law, a near-total ban, would reverberate in Texas and far beyond

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/9/2022 Bill Keveney and Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, USA TODAY
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When a Texas law prohibiting abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy took effect in September, Oklahoma became the biggest out-of-state destination for Texans seeking to terminate pregnancies.

That option could soon disappear after the Oklahoma Legislature's passage of a near-total abortion ban, among the most restrictive in the nation. The bill advanced Tuesday and needs only the signature of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has said he would sign all abortion restrictions, to become law.

What's happening in Texas and Oklahoma is the latest example of how difficult it will be to obtain an abortion for many Americans if Roe v. Wade is overturned and states are able to determine if and when abortion access is granted, health care experts said. 

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"When a state bans abortion, that disrupts the entire network from the West Coast to the East Coast, not only for that one state," said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health and rights think tank based in New York.

Consider that a ban in Oklahoma would have a ripple effect that would be felt throughout the region. Patients from Oklahoma and Texas would have to travel longer distances to obtain abortions and nearby states that provide those services, including New Mexico and Colorado, would have to bear larger caseloads. Some Texas women have traveled as far away as Maryland and New York since Texas' ban became lawPlanned Parenthood Federation of America said.

Appointment waiting times, which have gone from three days to at least two weeks at Oklahoma clinics since the Texas ban became law, would become longer in states where abortion remains accessible, Nash said.

Such barriers would create extra hardship for "patients (who) are often low income, disproportionately Black and brown …  populations that have been systematically oppressed and had the least access to health care and financial resources," Nash said.

Without Roe v. Wade, their abortions wouldn't have been possible. Women and other people of color share their stories.

In some states, this scenario is already unfolding. 

At Trust Women in Oklahoma City, one of four clinics providing abortions in Oklahoma, women from Texas and other states with restrictive abortion laws now make up a majority of patients, said co-executive director Rebecca Tong, who called the Oklahoma legislation "unconstitutional." 

Extended appointment waiting times have resulted in "more surgical procedures, pushing people past the point where medication abortion is an option. It's pushing them into riskier pregnancies," Tong said. "It's incredibly heartbreaking what is happening in this region."

And the longer waiting times have driven many Oklahoma residents to Kansas, where Trust Women has a clinic in Wichita and where abortion restrictions are also under consideration.

Abortion could be banned in more than half of all states

The Oklahoma bill would make performing an abortion a felony, subject to a potential 10-year prison term, except in cases where it is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.

The bill's author, Republican state Sen. Nathan Dahm, called it the "strongest pro-life legislation in the country right now," in a press statement. Emily Wales, interim president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, condemned the bill as the Legislature's attempt to "seek complete control over the bodies and lives of Oklahomans."

A group of reproductive rights groups, including the ACLU of Oklahoma and two Planned Parenthood organizations, protested Tuesday against a number of anti-abortion bills under consideration by the Oklahoma Legislature.

The groups said in a statement that the ban passed Tuesday "would be devastating for both Oklahomans and Texans who continue to seek care in Oklahoma ... Oklahomans could face a future where they would have no place left in their state to go to seek this basic health care."

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Texas prohibited abortions after cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy, and it allows private individuals to sue providers or people who help someone get an abortion in violation of the law. The state experienced a 60% drop in abortion patients after the law took effect, according to data released by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. After Texas passed its legislation, a dozen states introduced similar bills, including Oklahoma, in a separate effort to prohibit abortion.

Guttmacher estimates 26 states – home to 36 million women of reproductive age – are likely to ban abortion in some way if the Supreme Court rules against Roe. 

During a December debate over a Mississippi ban that would prohibit abortions after 15 weeks, the conservative-leaning court signaled support for the law, leaving open the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade when it releases its ruling later this year. The landmark 1973 decision prohibited states from banning abortions before viability, meaning roughly 23 or 24 weeks. 

Renee Bracey Sherman, of We Testify, speaks to supporters organized by the Center for Reproductive Rights during a rally at the U.S. Supreme Court during the hearing of oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. © Eric Kayne, Center for Reproductive Rights Renee Bracey Sherman, of We Testify, speaks to supporters organized by the Center for Reproductive Rights during a rally at the U.S. Supreme Court during the hearing of oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.

Texas residents now make up more than half of Oklahoma's abortion patients

Between Sept. 1, when the Texas ban took effect, and Dec. 31, 45% of Texans traveling out of state for abortion care went to northern neighbor Oklahoma, making it the top state destination, according to research conducted by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas, Austin. 

Another 27% traveled to New Mexico, which does not have any significant abortion restrictions, with others traveling to other neighboring states but also as far away as Illinois, Maryland and Washington, the research found.

In all, abortion patients from a Texas zip code made up more than half the total number of abortion patients seen at Planned Parenthood health centers in Oklahoma from September to December and more than five times the number of Texas patients seen in the same period in 2020.

The "horrific" legislation puts Oklahoma among a group of states seeking "to ban abortion in the most sadistic and cruel ways possible," said Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, a national group that describes itself as an organization dedicated to the representation of people who have abortions.

"The Oklahoma Legislature knows abortion clinics in their communities are working overtime to serve Oklahomans and people traveling from Texas and surrounding states, and with this patently unconstitutional move, they’re trying to make everyone travel even further for a 15-minute procedure," she said. 

As the abortion bans have spread, other states are preserving access. More than a quarter of states, including California and New York, have laws protecting abortion rights. This week, Colorado, one of the top three destination states for Texas abortion patients, finalized legislation declaring reproductive health care, including abortion, a "fundamental right." 

But most states near Texas – including Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas – are politically hostile to abortion rights, Nash said. Kansas residents will vote this summer on a measure saying the state constitution does not include a right to abortion, while Missouri's Legislature is holding hearings on its own abortion bans, she said.

Bans, whether in Texas, Oklahoma or any other state, ultimately put an extra burden on those seeking abortions, said Bracey Sherman of We Testify.

"Some people will have the funds to travel even further to another state, although they might be subject to whatever restrictions exist there, while others will be forced to continue their pregnancies with no support from the state," she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oklahoma abortion law, a near-total ban, would reverberate in Texas and far beyond

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