Oklahoma Passes Extreme Vigilante Abortion Ban, Nation’s Most Restrictive Yet: ‘A Reversal of History Right In Front of Our Eyes’

A rally in support of abortion rights outside the Oklahoma state legislature in April 2012. (Serena Blaiz / Flickr)

Update May 25, 5:45 p.m. PST: Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed a total ban on abortion (H.B. 4327) into law. This citizen-enforced total ban on abortion—beginning at fertilization—takes immediate effect, making Oklahoma the first state in the country to outlaw abortion while Roe v. Wade still stands.

On Thursday, May 19, the Oklahoma legislature passed a total ban on abortion, authorizing private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who assists someone obtaining an abortion. The law applies from the moment of fertilization.

“This is not one more ban. This is a first,” said Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “Today’s ban—which encourages bounty hunters to sue their neighbors or strangers for accessing abortion care at any stage of pregnancy—is a reversal of history happening in front of our eyes. Once signed, abortion will be illegal in Oklahoma. Full stop.”

The law will take effect immediately when signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has pledged to do so. Oklahoma will be the first state to successfully outlaw abortion and eliminate access while Roe v. Wade still stands.

“Oklahomans will have to travel long distances to get the care they need,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, co-chair of the Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice and executive director of ACLU of Oklahoma. Cox-Touré noted that 50 percent of Oklahomans don’t want abortion outlawed.

“There’s no denying that this is a very dark day. And unfortunately, dark days are ahead,” said Rabia Muqaddam, senior legal counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is challenging the law.

Muqaddam described the new law as ‘a radical attempt to confuse people, create chaos, and reap as much havoc as they can possibly do on people who are seeking abortion and the providers who provide it.’

The law is modeled after Texas S.B. 8, which the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court have declined to block because of its private enforcement mechanism, despite clearly violating constitutional abortion rights established in Roe v. Wade close to 50 years ago.

The law authorizes anyone to sue a person who helps a woman get an abortion—even people from outside of the state—and grants at least $10,000 and compensatory damages for “emotional distress” to successful litigants. The law has only narrow exceptions when a pregnant person’s life is endangered by a “physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury,” including ectopic pregnancies, and when the pregnancy is the result of “rape, sexual assault or incest that has been reported to law enforcement.” The law does not allow lawsuits against women “upon whom abortion has been performed.”

A protester in Boston, Mass., on May 3, 2022, after a leaked draft decision by the Supreme Court suggested the justices are poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide. (Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Muqaddam described the law as a “copycat of Texas’s bounty hunter law,” but says the law goes further by attempting to strip state courts of jurisdiction to review the law. She believes the law violates Oklahoma’s broad constitutional protections that “require remedies to be available for people when they’re injured, require open courts for people to air their grievances, and require that people aren’t subjected to laws that single out special kinds of litigants.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights is already challenging a similar Oklahoma citizen-enforced abortion ban, S.B. 1503, enacted on May 3 that applies at approximately six weeks of pregnancy, as well as two criminal bans on abortion—one that would go into effect if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and another that goes into effect on August 1.

This law puts everybody in danger. Not just patients, not just providers, but everybody who believes in and supports bodily autonomy.

Rabia Muqaddam, Center for Reproductive Rights

Muqaddam described the new law as “a radical attempt to confuse people, create chaos, and reap as much havoc as they can possibly do on people who are seeking abortion and the providers who provide it.”

“This law was designed to encourage people to bring frivolous and harassing lawsuits,” said Muqaddam. “This law puts everybody in danger. Not just patients, not just providers, but everybody who believes in and supports bodily autonomy.”

Devastating Impact of Oklahoma Restrictions

Planned Parenthood providers are concerned about the impact of the law on their patients.

“The effects on the ground have been catastrophic,” said Dr. Iman Alsaden, medical director at Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “Even while S.B. 1503 has been in effect, the vast majority of care has been inaccessible in the state. And patients have been thrown into chaos. Even the patients that have been able to be seen in Oklahoma have faced tremendous barriers and costs associated with their limited care. And many, many, many Oklahomans have traveled out of their state. That’s resulted in even more Texans having to travel even farther.”

Dr. Alsaden said that some people will not be able to get the care they need and will have to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

“While the clinics are going to do everything they can to get patients care, the reality is that it’s not going to be possible for everyone, especially since the majority of patients who seek abortions in Oklahoma and nationally are low income folks,” said Alsaden. “The reality is that while some will be able to travel, many will not.”

One in five Oklahoman children live in poverty, according to Alsaden, and Oklahoma is 33rd in the nation in infant mortality, Black infants are twice as likely to die as white infants in the state and the state is 34th in maternity mortality.

“This is a devastating day for individual liberties, individual health care decisions, and most importantly, individuals in Oklahoma who deserve respect,” said Wales. “These decisions should be their own. To all who need care, we see you and our doors are open for you—even if we cannot provide care here at home in the same way we have.”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.