OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma House gave final approval Thursday to a Texas-style abortion ban that prohibits the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant.
The bill approved by the GOP-led House without discussion or debate now heads to Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who is expected to sign it within days. The assault on abortion rights is one of several culture-war issues conservatives in GOP-led states have embraced, like restricting LGBTQ rights, that drive the party's base in an election year.
A coalition of Oklahoma abortion providers and abortion rights advocates immediately filed separate legal challenges in state court to both the Texas-style ban and a separate bill Stitt signed earlier this month to make abortion a felony. Legal experts say it's likely both measures could be temporarily halted before they take effect.
House members also voted Thursday to adopt new language prohibiting transgender students from using school restrooms that match their gender identity and requiring parental notification ahead of any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“They're all concerned about their elections coming up and making sure they have something they can put on a postcard to talk about," said Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Midwest City.
The abortion bill, dubbed the Oklahoma Heartbeat Act, prohibits the procedure once cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, which experts say is roughly six weeks into a pregnancy. A similar bill approved in Texas last year led to a dramatic reduction in the number of abortions performed in that state, with many women going to Oklahoma and other surrounding states for the procedure.
Like the Texas law, the Oklahoma bill would allow private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion for up to $10,000. After the U.S. Supreme Court allowed that mechanism to remain in place, other Republican-led states sought to copy Texas' ban. Idaho's governor signed the first copycat measure in March, although it has been temporarily blocked by the state's Supreme Court.
Although Stitt already signed a bill this year to make performing an abortion a felony crime in Oklahoma, that measure is not set to take effect until this summer. But the ban approved by the House on a 68-12 vote Thursday has an “emergency” provision that allows it to take effect immediately after the governor signs it.
Abortion providers say it will immediately end most abortions in Oklahoma unless a court intervenes.
“The Oklahoma Supreme Court has repeatedly found that the state legislature’s extreme attempts to restrict abortion are unconstitutional, and these bans are some of the most extreme yet,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.
A separate bill that uses the Texas-style enforcement mechanism to ban all abortions, not just after cardiac activity is detected, passed the Senate on Thursday and heads to the House for consideration. The bills are among more than a half-dozen anti-abortion measures introduced in the Legislature this year.
“We are more concerned at this point about these Texas-style bans because they have, at least recently, been able to continue and remain in effect,” said Emily Wales, interim president and CEO at Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates two abortion clinics in Oklahoma. “We do intend to challenge those if they’re passed, but because of the emergency clause provisions, there would be at least some period of time when we could not offer care.”
Before the Texas ban took effect last year, about 40 women from Texas had abortions performed in Oklahoma each month, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. That number jumped to 222 Texas women in September and 243 in October, the agency reported.
“We’re serving as many Texans as Oklahomans right now, in some cases more Texans than Oklahomans,” Wales said.
Tony Lauinger, the chairman of Oklahomans for Life and a longtime anti-abortion advocate in the state, said he's optimistic the measure will be deemed constitutional.
“It’s identical to the bill that was enacted by the Texas Legislature last year, and that bill has passed muster with the United States Supreme Court," Lauinger said. “We are hopeful that this bill will save the lives of more unborn children here in Oklahoma as well."
This story has been corrected to indicate the bill targets cardiac activity in the embryo, not fetus.