By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – An emergency lawsuit has been filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, challenging an order issued by Gov. Kevin Stitt on March 24, banning abortion services and then categorizing them as “elective” during the current pandemic.
Gov. Stitt, a Republican, issued the order in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, requiring all elective medical and surgical procedures be postponed. He added abortion services to the strictures impacting hospitals and medical providers.
On March 27, Stitt issued a “clarifying” press release that singled out abortion services, saying his order prohibited all abortions in the state for the present and some time to come.
“Oklahoma’s abuse of emergency powers to ban abortion care is dangerous and unconstitutional,” said Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We have filed suit to protect access to essential, time-sensitive health care that profoundly impacts women’s lives, health and wellbeing.”
Stitt’s executive order implements a statewide moratorium on elective surgeries and minor medical procedures until April 7. Officials in other states, including Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and Mississippi, have issued similar directives.
“The state claims this order is meant to protect health care professionals and stop the spread of the virus, but forcing women to travel out of state for abortion care is completely contrary to that goal,” said Julie Burkhart, Founder and CEO of Trust Women.
“Like many of us, our patients are taking care of kids while schools are closed, and some have lost their jobs,” Burkhart said. “Having to tell them that we can’t help them, that the state has tied our hands, is heart-wrenching.”
Brandon Hill, PhD, president and CEO of Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains stated, “Abortion is an essential and time-sensitive medical procedure — and it must remain accessible, no matter what.”
Hill added, “Emergency orders during a pandemic should advance the health and safety of Oklahomans, not try to score political points by using a national crisis to deny critical health care.”
Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America stated, “A global pandemic is not an excuse to attack essential, time-sensitive medical procedures like abortion. Yet that’s exactly what anti-abortion politicians and activists are trying to do, instead of working together to ensure everyone has access to health care.”
The lawsuit argues that Oklahoma’s order effectively bans abortion in Oklahoma, violating Roe v. Wade and nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent protecting a woman’s right to liberty and autonomy under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The lawsuit also argues that forcing women to travel out of state for abortion services, or to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and give birth, will increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 and undermine the state’s asserted goal of preserving medical resources.
The full complaint is available here.
“The government should not use this pandemic as an excuse to target abortion access, especially since doing so right now is counterproductive to evidence-based practices,” said Nicole McAfee, Director of Policy and Advocacy for ACLU of Oklahoma. “Protecting reproductive health care is always essential to better public health outcomes in general, but it’s especially important at this moment that we guarantee access to constitutionally protected health care.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging other abortion restrictions in Oklahoma, including: a ban on the use of telemedicine to provide medication abortion care; a law that forces patients to delay their abortion care for at least 72 hours after receiving certain state-mandated information; a “physician-only” law that bans qualified medical professionals from providing medication abortion care; a ban on a wisely-used method of abortion after approximately 14 weeks of pregnancy; and a law requiring doctors to tell patients that some abortions can be “reversed,” which the Center says is “a patently false statement.”
“Abortion is essential health care. Full stop,” said Tamya Cox-Touré Regional Director of Public Policy and Organizing for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes. “Planned Parenthood is committed to providing exceptional health care to Oklahomans and that includes abortion. Gov. Sttit’s administration is trying desperately to dismantle abortion care in the wake of a pandemic. We can’t let that happen.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, has assembled a coalition of state attorneys general who support abortion rights to submit an amicus brief on the abortion providers’ behalf.
“We will not allow any government agency or government official to use the coronavirus as an excuse to limit a woman’s reproductive freedom,” James said in an interview with NPR. “Abortion is not an elective procedure…and should be available to any person who chooses to exercise that right.”