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Okla. lawmakers send first-of-its-kind abortion ban targeting licenses of physicians who provide abortion care to gov.

The Oklahoma Senate on Thursday voted 33-12 to give final approval to a bill (SB 1552) that effectively bars licensed doctors from providing abortion care, the New York Times reports.

The bill now proceeds to Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who has five days to accept or reject the bill. If she does not act on the measure within that time period, the bill will become law (Eckholm, New York Times, 5/19). According to the Los Angeles Times, Fallin has not commented on the bill, but she has noted previously that she has never vetoed antiabortion-rights legislation (Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times, 5/19).

Bill details

The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Nathan Dahm (R), would require medical licensure officials to deny renewing or issuing a license for physicians who provide abortion care in circumstances outside of certain limited exceptions. In addition, the bill would bar physicians who have provided such care from attaining a medical license (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/25). Further, physicians who violate the measure by providing abortion care would be guiltly of a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison (Los Angeles Times, 5/19).

The bill's limited exceptions include instances when the woman's life is in danger or when the fetus is not viable. The bill does not include exceptions in cases of rape or incest (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/25). According to the Times, while the life endangerment exception is included in the bill's provision addressing physician licensing, it is not included in the provision outlining felony charges (New York Times, 5/19).

The measure, if enacted, would effectively prohibit abortion care in the state. Courts have blocked attempts in other states to bar abortion care prior to fetal viability, such as North Dakota's fetal "heartbeat" ban (HB 1456) and Arkansas' 12-week abortion ban (Act 301) (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/25).

Comments

In a letter to Fallin, officials at the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) condemned the bill, stating, "This measure is harmful, discriminatory, clearly unconstitutional, and insulting to Oklahoma women and their families" (Brandes, Reuters, 5/19).

Kelly Baden, director of state advocacy for CRR, noted that clinics in the state "are being inundated with calls from women asking whether they can get the abortion care they need." She added, "For Oklahoma legislators to put women in this position -- it's unfathomable and cruel" (Los Angeles Times, 5/19).

CRR is expected to file a legal challenge against the bill should it become law. Baden said, "We have not shied away from challenging Oklahoma in the past when it has tried to pass various kinds of abortion restrictions" (Los Angeles Times, 5/19). According to CRR officials, the organization has had to bring legal challenges against the state eight times in the last six years (New York Times, 5/19). Courts have blocked several Oklahoma antiabortion-rights laws from taking effect in recent years.

Amanda Allen, senior state legislative counsel at CRR, noted, "Oklahoma politicians have made it their mission year after year to restrict women's access to vital health care services, yet this total ban on abortion is a new low."

Separately, Julie Burkhart -- founder and CEO of Trust Women, a Kansas-based abortion provider that is opening a clinic in Oklahoma City -- said she is "dismayed" by the bill's approval. However, she added, "Trust Women stands firm on our decision to open a clinic in the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without a provider ... Women need the services we will offer" (Murphy, AP/Sacramento Bee, 5/19).

The bill also has drawn opposition from some conservative state lawmakers (New York Times, 5/19). State Sen. Ervin Yen (R), an anesthesiologist, said the bill would discourage physicians from practicing in Oklahoma. "You're going to be fearful you're going to have your license taken away and you'll be thrown in jail" he said, adding, "I do not think we should be passing laws that would be declared unconstitutional in the future" (Los Angeles Times, 5/19).

Experts consider bill unconstitutional

According to USA Today, legal experts say the bill is unconstitutional.

Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women's Law Center, said, "For more than four decades, the Supreme Court has said that the Constitution prohibits a state from banning abortion prior to viability." She noted that if the bill is signed into law, she "expect[s] it would be challenged immediately in court, and the state would lose the case" (Wolf, USA Today, 5/19).

David Gans, civil rights director at the Constitutional Accountability Center, said the bill likely would be struck down as unconstitutional if enacted, explaining that SB 1522 violates the due process clause as well as the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Gans said, "This bill is really flouting these fundamental principles that the Supreme Court has explained and that are the law of the land."

Gans explained that the Supreme Court has affirmed Roe v. Wade in multiple lawsuits, citing abortion bans in Guam, Louisiana and Utah that have been overturned by the high court. Gans said, "Oklahoma is not the first to do this. Time and time again, what the Supreme Court has said is you cannot ban abortions" (Los Angeles Times, 5/19).

Okla. House advances bill to force schools to promote antiabortion-rights agenda

In related news, the Oklahoma House on Thursday advanced legislation (HB 2797) that mandates public schools to promote an antiabortion-rights agenda, the AP/Bee reports. However, the state House did not approve funding for the bill, which the bill's sponsor said is necessary for its implementation. The bill now proceeds to the state Senate (AP/Sacramento Bee, 5/19).

The measure, proposed by Rep. Ann Coody (R), would create a fund for antiabortion-rights education. The measure would authorize the state to pay antiabortion-rights groups to provide classroom instruction and develop curricular materials. The funding could not be used for materials that support abortion rights.

According to Coody, the bill would require schools to tell students that life begins at conception. In addition, the measure would authorize antiabortion-rights public service announcements funded by the state.

Tony Lauinger -- director of Oklahomans for Life, which supports the bill -- has said that parents would be allowed to opt their children out of the antiabortion-rights curriculum, and that he did not know how the bill's curriculum provision or public service announcements requirement would be implemented (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/8).