Oklahoma Supreme Court Delivers An Important Victory For Abortion Rights

CREDIT: Shutterstock

The Oklahoma Supreme Court stepped in to protect reproductive rights on Tuesday, temporarily blocking two harsh abortion restrictions that went into effect this weekend to very little fanfare as the national attention has been focused on this week’s midterm elections. The move ensures that the state’s busiest abortion clinic will be able to remain operating, at least for now.

The two laws in question are nearly identical to abortion restrictions that are currently wreaking havoc on reproductive health access in Texas. The first requires doctors to have admitting privileges with local hospitals, an unnecessary regulation that doesn’t have any effect on patient safety. The second places limits on the way that doctors are allowed to administer the abortion pill, essentially circumventing the best practice to force doctors to revert to an outdated method of medication abortion.

“We have seen the heartbreaking impact these restrictions have had on women in Texas who lost access to safe, legal abortion overnight,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement. “We are relieved the court has stepped in to protect women’s access to safe, legal abortion in Oklahoma.”

The ruling isn’t final; it simply prevents the laws from being enforced while they return to the district courts to be fully litigated. But the Center for Reproductive Rights, the New York-based organization that is fighting to overturn the two measures, is celebrating the move as a significant victory for the time being.

“Time and time again, courts are seeing that the true motive behind these underhanded and baseless restrictions is to push essential reproductive health care services out of reach for as many women as possible,” Nancy Northup, the group’s president, said in a statement.

The Center for Reproductive Rights is representing Dr. Larry Burns, a physician with more than 40 years of experience providing abortion care who has been unable to obtain admitting privileges in Oklahoma. Several different hospitals have turned him down, and Burns was forced to stop practicing when Oklahoma’s new laws took effect on Saturday — but will now be able to resume his operations as the challenge against the measures proceeds.

The situation in Oklahoma is playing out throughout the surrounding region. Unnecessary laws requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges — policies that are often referred to as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP — have rapidly spread throughout Southern states, threatening women’s access to abortion over a broad swath of the country. Over the past several years, lawmakers in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have all approved TRAP laws that threaten to shut down abortion clinics.

As Oklahoma demonstrates, women’s abortion rights typically hang in the balance depending whether or not courts choose to enforce states’ harsh laws. And there’s no guarantee that future rulings will be favorable. While the Oklahoma Supreme Court has a history of protecting reproductive rights, conservative federal courts — like the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which includes Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas — have shown a willingness to rule in the opposite direction.