Frontline workers fear repercussions of abortion laws
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Strict anti-abortion laws that went into effect in Oklahoma this year led to the rapid closure of all abortion centers in the state, but left questions for those who work directly with women who can seek advice or help obtain an out-of-state abortion.
Beyond the Deep Repercussions abortion laws have on medical care, especially reproductive medicine, clergy, social workers, and even librarians have expressed concerns about exposure to criminal or civil liability for simply discussing the topic.
Those fears are well-founded, says Joseph Thai, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches constitutional law and the Supreme Court. He described Oklahoma’s new anti-abortion laws, which include both criminal and civil penalties, as the toughest in the country to date and broad in both substance and scope.
The decision of the United States Supreme Court in June to overturn Roe v. Wade and remove women’s constitutional right to abortion immediately triggered a Oklahoma Act of 1910 this makes it a felony, punishable by two to five years in prison, for anyone who “counsels” or otherwise provides a woman with an abortion. This law allows abortion only to save the life of the mother.
“This universal language can make anyone who helps a woman have an abortion or provides information about abortion access – including a spouse, other family member, friend, classmate or colleague, a librarian or even an Uber driver – a criminal,” Thai said. “Similarly, employers who have agreed to pay for their employees’ abortions as part of their reproductive health coverage and their insurance companies incur criminal liability.”
Although Alabama, Arizona and Texas have laws prohibiting “aiding and abetting” a woman to have an abortion, Oklahoma’s is the strictest and the only one currently in effect, said Elizabeth Nash, state policy analyst for abortion rights supporting the Guttmacher Institute.
While former Oklahoma providers may have halted abortions, they haven’t stopped counseling.
Emily Wales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said giving a pregnant woman information about abortion care is protected by free speech protections in the Constitution.
“We’ve heard from providers who aren’t sure if they can make referrals, if they can even tell people to go to the Planned Parenthood website or abortionfinder.com,” Wales said. “We don’t think there’s any controversy about being able to tell people what their options are and that they can access care in another state.”
Others, however, are more worried. No charges have been filed in the seven weeks since the law prohibiting counseling or assisting a woman to have an abortion came into force and it is not known if anyone is doing the subject of an investigation. Messages left with several Oklahoma prosecutors about how they plan to enforce anti-abortion laws were not returned, and the head of the state’s Board of District Attorneys Kathryn Boyle Brewer said said the matter had not been formally discussed by prosecutors at their regular meetings. .
Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican who drafted the trigger law, said he believed those who helped a woman get an abortion should be prosecuted, although he said that prosecutors were unlikely to go after family members of a pregnant woman.
“Absolutely, if you’re going to aid and abet in a crime, you should be held accountable,” Treat said. “Where the biggest issue is where these companies are offering to pay $4,000 to help you kill an unborn life and knowingly circumvent Oklahoma statutes.
“Since this came into effect, there have been no prosecutions. The good news is that people don’t get abortions in Oklahoma, and so far there hasn’t been a case of anyone helping and abetting in a way that can be sued.
A separate law passed by the Oklahoma Republican-controlled legislature this year modeled after a Texas law allows anyone to sue “any person” who aids and abets a woman to have an abortion and collect a minimum reward of $10,000 plus attorney’s fees.
“Notably, none of these criminal or civil laws limit their language to abortions performed in Oklahoma,” Thai added. “So anyone in Oklahoma who helps a woman get an abortion outside of Oklahoma, like in neighboring Kansas, could arguably be sued or prosecuted under these sweeping laws.”
Reverend Lori Walke, senior minister at the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, said some church leaders question their potential legal exposure for helping women navigate abortion services.
“Among my colleagues, the conversation has been, ‘This is a risk we have to be willing to take because banning abortion goes against our religion,’ to put it bluntly,” he said. Walke, adding that sometimes the advocacy work of religious leaders includes the possibility of arrest and incarceration.
Similar concerns are being raised by social workers, many of whom believe the ban on counseling women about abortion services is against their code of ethics which requires them to respect a client’s wishes, said Steven Pharris. , chief of the Oklahoma chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
“The changes in the laws have kind of criminalized a lot of what we do, so it’s changed our role with clients,” Pharris said. “It created a chilling effect on what we can and cannot say.”
At one point, Librarians in Oklahoma City were warned not to even say the word “abortion,” though that changed after the city’s library system team reviewed the laws, said system manager Larry White.
White says staff have since been instructed to treat abortion inquiries like any other reference question, where they provide factual information and answers to questions on the subject. However, some staff members remain concerned.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” White said. “We do not want to put our staff in any way at risk of receiving civil liabilities under this law if we can prevent it. We also have an obligation to protect them and the organization from any civil liability.