OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that two state laws banning abortion are unconstitutional, but the procedure remains illegal in the state in nearly all cases except life-threatening situations.
In a 6-3 ruling, the high court said the two bans are unconstitutional because they require a “medical emergency” before a doctor can perform an abortion. The court said this language conflicts with a previous ruling it issued in March that determined the Oklahoma Constitution provides an “inherent right of a pregnant woman to terminate a pregnancy when necessary to preserve her life.”
The court's decision was welcomed by doctors who said uncertainty about the state's abortion laws often forced them to make women facing severe medical complications and nonviable pregnancies to wait for their condition to worsen before they could perform an abortion.
“In our practice we had cases where we would just have to tell women who we would normally offer a (pregnancy) termination to protect her health ... ‘We have to let you go home and monitor your condition and if you start showing signs of infection or worsening blood pressure, then come back and we have the ability to legally treat you,’” said Dana Stone, an Oklahoma City obstetrician and gynecologist. “Otherwise, we're at risk with these laws of going to jail for 10 years, having hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and losing our medical licenses.”
Despite the court's March decision that the requirement to wait until an active medical emergency violated the state constitution, there remained uncertainty because of the two laws that remained in effect.
“With their decision today, the court has ensured that the March decision will be fully realized,” said Rabia Muqaddam, a senior staff attorney at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the laws on behalf of a Tulsa abortion provider. “Hopefully patients will be receiving the medically necessary care they need without waiting until they are on death's door.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling last year that overturned Roe v. Wade and the nationwide right to abortion, tighter abortion restrictions have been enacted in most Republican-controlled states and protections of abortion access have gone into effect in most that are dominated by Democrats.
The laws struck down Wednesday in Oklahoma both included a civil-enforcement mechanism, first enacted in Texas in 2021, that allowed citizens to sue someone who either performed or helped someone perform an abortion.
“Despite the court’s decisions today on SB 1503 and HB 4327, Oklahoma’s 1910 law prohibiting abortion remains in place," Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said in a statement. "Except for certain circumstances outlined in that statute, abortion is still unlawful in the state of Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma's 1910 law makes it a felony crime punishable by up to five years in prison for anyone to perform an abortion or help a woman obtain an abortion unless it is “necessary to preserve her life.”
The court's decision was decried by Republican leaders and Gov. Kevin Stitt, who have worked for years to tightly restrict abortion access in Oklahoma.
“This court has once more over-involved itself in the state’s democratic process, and has interceded to undo legislation created by the will of the people," Stitt said in a statement. "I agree with Justice (Dustin) Rowe’s dissent, ‘The issues presented in this matter are political questions, which are better resolved by the people via our democratic process.’”
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This version has been corrected with the correct bill number as SB 1503, not SB 1603.