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Oklahoma governor signs a bill to criminalize most abortions

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address in Oklahoma City on Feb. 7.
Alonzo Adams
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AP
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address in Oklahoma City on Feb. 7.

Updated April 12, 2022 at 11:58 AM ET

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed a bill that would make performing an abortion a felony except in the case of a medical emergency. Officials acknowledge the measure is destined for a court challenge.

"We want Oklahoma to be the most pro-life state in the country," Stitt said at a Tuesday morning bill signing. "We want to outlaw abortion in the state of Oklahoma."

It's the latest conservative jurisdiction to enact a new restriction on abortion, as Republican-led states across the country push to limit reproductive rights.

The recent wave of bills restricting abortion comes as the country awaits the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in a landmark reproductive rights case. Some legal experts predict the conservative court could weaken or even overturn the constitutional right to an abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy guaranteed in Roe v. Wade.

"The only person who should have the power to decide whether you need an abortion is you — no matter where you live, or how much money you make," Tamya Cox-Touré, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said in a statement after the bill was passed. "But Oklahoma is facing an abortion access crisis that poses an immediate threat to our community's health and reproductive freedom."

What the Oklahoma bill would do

The legislation, SB-612, prohibits people in Oklahoma from performing abortions unless they are doing so to "save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency."

A person convicted under the bill would be guilty of a felony and could face a fine up to $100,000 or a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

A pregnant woman could not be charged with a crime for having an abortion.

Emily Wales, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, speaks to a group of abortion rights advocates outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on Tuesday. The Oklahoma House gave final legislative approval to a bill that would make performing an abortion a felony.
Sean Murphy / AP
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AP
Emily Wales, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, speaks to a group of abortion rights advocates outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on Tuesday. The Oklahoma House gave final legislative approval to a bill that would make performing an abortion a felony.

The Oklahoma House approved the measure by a 70-14 vote last week. It had been approved by the Senate in March of last year.

"Senate Bill 612 is the strongest pro-life legislation in the country right now, which effectively eliminates abortion in Oklahoma," Republican State Sen. Nathan Dahm, one of the bill's authors, said in a statement.

Stitt has vowed to sign all anti-abortion bills the legislature sends him.

In March, the Oklahoma House passed a bill that would ban many abortions and allow private citizens to file civil lawsuits against anyone who performed an abortion, a legal framework similar to a Texas law.

After that law took effect in Texas in September, Oklahoma reportedly saw a surge in women from Texas seeking abortions. Nearly half of the patients being seen by Oklahoma providers are from Texas, the ACLU said.

GOP lawmakers are counting on Roe to be overturned

Although the Oklahoma bill will most certainly invite a legal challenge if it becomes law, experts say the measure's supporters are likely unmoved by that prospect.

"I think that this is just a reflection of the fact that lawmakers in Oklahoma, as in much of the country, are pretty confident that the Supreme Court is going to overrule Roe and that it's just a matter of time until a law like this can go into effect," Mary Ziegler, visiting professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, told NPR.

Ziegler said the law may even be blocked from being enforced in the short term, but that Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma are likely counting on the Supreme Court to toss out Roe in the summer, clearing the way for such a law to take effect.

"They may lose the battle but they will think that they're going to win the war," Ziegler said.

Speaking at the bill signing, Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor said officials are hopeful that the Supreme Court will give states the ability to decide whether to allow or outlaw abortion.

"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," O'Connor said.

Even as the constitutional right to an abortion has remained in place, states have left pre-Roe abortion bans in place or passed "trigger" laws that would prohibit the procedure if the Supreme Court ever allowed states to make that decision. More recently, lawmakers in conservative states from Alabama to Idaho to Arizona have passed new restrictions on abortion.

Laws criminalizing abortion used to be common

Some states are passing laws that would be enforced by private citizens filing civil lawsuits, while others like Oklahoma make performing an abortion a crime.

Laws that explicitly criminalize performing an abortion were common at the end of the 19th century, Ziegler said. "At one point in time almost every state had such a law," he said.

But that changed in the 1960s and 1970s as advocates pushed to repeal such restrictions in the years before the Roe decision, which ultimately guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion nationwide.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.