Oklahoma Supreme Court Blocks Two Unconstitutional Measures Designed to Severely Restrict Access to Abortion

Oklahoma’s clinic shutdown law, restrictions on medication abortion blocked while litigation continues

(PRESS RELEASE) Today the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked two unconstitutional measures designed to drastically reduce abortion services in the state, ensuring Oklahoma women will continue to have safe and legal options to end a pregnancy while the legal battle continues.

The state Supreme Court blocked Oklahoma’s law designed to shut down abortion clinics by forcing reproductive health care clinics to have a physician with local hospital admitting privileges on-site when abortion procedures are performed. In light of today’s ruling, the physician who has been providing nearly half of all abortions in the state can reopen and continue offering safe and legal abortion services while the litigation continues.

The court also enjoined a state measure that requires physicians to treat women seeking medication abortion according to a decade-old method that is less safe, less effective, and more expensive than the evidence-based methods most doctors currently use. The law also bans all medication abortions after 49 days of pregnancy, forcing women to undergo a surgical procedure when they otherwise would have the safe and effective option of using medications. Today’s ruling ensures women in the state will continue to have access to a method of ending an early pregnancy using medication proven safe by more than a decade of scientific evidence and medical practice.

Today’s ruling blocks enforcement both laws—which had initially taken effect on November 1 after state district courts failed to preliminarily enjoin the laws—while each case returns to the trial court.

Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“Today the Oklahoma Supreme Court handed the women of Oklahoma a crucial victory by protecting their constitutional rights and restoring critical options for those seeking safe and legal abortion services.

“Time and time again, courts are seeing that the true motive behind these underhanded and baseless restrictions is to push essential reproductive health care services out of reach for as many women as possible.”

“We will continue to stand with Oklahoma women and their health care providers to ultimately see these sham restrictions overturned and ensure their rights are never determined by virtue of their zip code.”

With the admitting privileges requirement—which the Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging on behalf of Larry A. Burns, D.O, a physician with over 41 years of experience providing safe abortion care —Oklahoma joined the ranks of other states that have attempted to use admitting privileges requirements as an underhanded way to shutter high-quality clinics and severely limit women’s access to abortion services.  Women’s health care providers and advocates are currently involved in two challenges to Texas’ unconstitutional admitting privileges requirement which has already closed health centers across the state while the last clinic in Mississippi is fighting to keep its doors open.  Louisiana clinics are also challenging a similar law which could shutter the majority of providers in that state.  A similar law in Alabama was recently found unconstitutional and Wisconsin’s admitting privileges requirement has been preliminarily blocked.

Major medical groups oppose laws like Oklahoma’s that require hospital admitting privileges for physicians providing abortion services.  In an amicus brief filed in the challenge to Texas’ admitting privileges requirement, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) write that the law “jeopardizes women’s health,” and does “nothing to protect the health of women.”  The Oklahoma State Medical Association opposed Senate Bill 1848 because it “would result in the Legislature and unelected bureaucrats at the Department of Health interfering in the physician/patient relationship and crafting more burdensome regulations that . . . may not reflect medical science or the best interest of the patient.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed the challenge to the restrictions on medication abortion in September 2014 on behalf of Nova Health Systems d/b/a Reproductive Services—a non-profit reproductive health care facility in Tulsa—and the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice—a non-profit membership organization dedicated to ensuring the availability of the full range of reproductive health care services to women throughout the state in this challenge.

This is the third time in the past four years Oklahoma politicians have passed legislation restricting women’s access to medication abortion in the state, including a measure that would have effectively banned the method in 2011.  The Center for Reproductive Rights filed a legal challenge in October 2011 against that provision and the US Supreme Court eventually refused to hear the case, allowing the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision permanently blocking the law from taking effect to stand.

Women in the United States have been safely and legally using medication abortion for over a decade, with one in four women who make the decision to end a pregnancy in the first nine weeks choosing this method.  Major medical groups oppose laws like Oklahoma’s which severely restrict access to medication abortion.  Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (ACOG) have submitted amicus briefs opposing similar restrictions in Arizona and Texas.  These types of restrictions ignore years of doctor’s practical experience and scientific advancement, forcing providers to prescribe the medication with an inferior, outdated, and less effective protocol.

Blake Patton of Walding & Patton and Martha Hardwick of Hardwick Law Office also represent the providers in each lawsuit.

Harmful and unconstitutional restrictions like these further underscore the need for the federal Women's Health Protection Act (S. 1696/H.R. 3471)—a bill that would prohibit states like Oklahoma from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive health care providers that apply to no similar medical care, interfere with women’s personal decision making, and block access to safe and legal abortion services.