Over the weekend, as most national news outlets turned their attention to the upcoming midterm elections, it got harder to get an abortion in the South — a region where the advancement of harsh restrictions on abortion clinics has ensured that women’s access to reproductive health care is increasingly under attack.
Two new abortion laws — one that requires doctors to have admitting privileges with local hospitals, and another that places limits on the way that doctors are allowed to administer the abortion pill — took effect in Oklahoma on Saturday, after state judges upheld both measures. Since then, at least one of the three clinics in the state has already been forced to halt its services.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, the group that is challenging both laws, says that the legislation represents a dangerous attempt to limit women’s options. The group is appealing both recent decisions, asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to issue an emergency injunction against the abortion restrictions.
The new laws are nearly identical to two measures currently in effect in Texas, a state that has captured national headlines with its recent efforts to undermine reproductive rights. Under the admitting privileges requirement in Texas, for example, half of the state’s abortion clinics were forced to close within a year of the law’s enactment. And under the state’s abortion pill restrictions, women who want to end an early pregnancy by taking abortion-inducing medication may have to make as many as four trips to a clinic.
The Center for Reproductive Rights’ president, Nancy Northup, has referred to the admitting privileges requirement as a “copycat clinic shutdown law,” as well as noted that the abortion pill regulations represent “sham restrictions passed under false pretenses.” Nonetheless, Oklahoma’s recent move hasn’t gotten much national attention — certainly, none of the fanfare that accompanied Texas’ new law, which went into effect after current gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ dramatic filibuster put the spotlight on the Lone Star State.
But the situation in Oklahoma illustrates the dire straits for women in much of the surrounding region. Admitting privilege laws — which are often referred to as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP — are sweeping the country, and have particularly taken hold in Southern states. 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. Women in the region are quickly running out of options, both within their own borders and in neighboring states.
For instance, the Oklahoma provider who’s been forced to stop practicing under the new law, Dr. Larry Burns, provides about half of the 5,000 abortions in the state each year. If his clinic remains closed, that’s 2,500 procedures that will need to be handled elsewhere. But with the dwindling number of clinics in nearby Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana, Burns’ patients don’t have very many good alternatives. Women may have to drive hundreds of miles to find a clinic that can accommodate them, something that ends up making the procedure even more expensive.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has a history of ruling in favor of reproductive rights, so it’s possible the justices will step in soon and block the new laws. Regardless, it’s clear that abortion opponents are slowly advancing their goal of limiting access to the procedure in broad swaths of the country — even as abortion issues aren’t necessarily dominating the headlines this election cycle in the same way as they did in 2012 at the height of the “war on women” messaging.
On Tuesday, the state’s highest court temporarily blocked both laws, sending them back to lower courts to be fully litigated. The Center for Reproductive Rights is celebrating the ruling as a significant victory for the time being.