OKLAHOMA CITY – Strict anti-abortion laws that took effect in Oklahoma this year led to the quick shuttering of every abortion facility in the state, but left questions for those who work directly with women who may seek their advice or help getting an abortion out of state.
Beyond the profound repercussions the abortion laws are having on medical care, especially reproductive medicine, clergy members, social workers and even librarians have raised concerns about being exposed to criminal or civil liability for just discussing the topic.
Those fears are well-founded, says Joseph Thai, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches about constitutional law and the Supreme Court. He described Oklahoma's new anti-abortion laws, which include both criminal and civil penalties, as the strictest in the nation so far and sweeping in both substance and scope.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade and remove women's constitutional right to abortion immediately triggered a 1910 Oklahoma law that makes it a felony, punishable by two to five years in prison, for every person who “advises" or provides any other means for a woman to procure an abortion. That law allows abortion only to save the mother's life.
“That all-encompassing language can make anyone and everyone who helps a woman get an abortion or provides information about access to abortion — including a spouse, another family member, a friend, a classmate or co-worker, a librarian, or even an Uber driver — a felon," Thai said. “Likewise, employers who have pledged to pay for their employees' abortions as part of their reproductive health coverage and their insurance companies face criminal liability."
Although Alabama, Arizona and Texas have laws prohibiting “aiding and abetting" a woman in getting an abortion, Oklahoma's is the strictest and the only one currently in effect, said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the abortion-rights supporting Guttmacher Institute.
While former providers in Oklahoma may have halted abortions, they haven't stopped giving advice.
Emily Wales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said giving a pregnant woman information about abortion care is guarded under 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 Planned Parenthood’s 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 concerned. No charges have been filed in the seven weeks since the law against advising or helping a woman get an abortion went into effect and it's not known whether anyone is being investigated. Messages left with several Oklahoma prosecutors about how they plan to enforce the anti-abortion laws were not returned, and the head of the state's District Attorneys Council, Kathryn Boyle Brewer, said the issue hasn't been formally discussed by prosecutors at its regular meetings.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican who wrote the trigger law, said he believes those who help a woman get an abortion should be prosecuted, although he said it's unlikely prosecutors would go after a pregnant woman's family members.
“Absolutely, if you’re going to aid and abet in a felony, you should be held responsible," Treat said. “Where the bigger issue is is where these corporations are offering to pay $4,000 to help you kill an unborn life and knowingly go around Oklahoma’s statutes.
“Since this has been in effect, there haven’t been any prosecutions. The good news is people are not having abortions in Oklahoma, and thus far there has not been a case where someone is aiding and abetting in such a way that can be prosecuted."
A separate law passed by Oklahoma's Republican-controlled Legislature this year that was modeled on a Texas law allows anyone to sue “any person" who aids and abets a woman in getting an abortion and collect a minimum $10,000 award plus attorney 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, such as in neighboring Kansas, arguably could be prosecuted or sued under these sweeping laws."
The Rev. Lori Walke, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, said that's left some religious leaders wondering about 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 abortion bans are against our religion,' to put it directly," Walke said, adding that sometimes advocacy work by faith leaders includes the possibility of arrest and incarceration.
Similar concerns are being raised by social workers, many of whom believe a prohibition on advising women about abortion services conflicts with their code of ethics that requires them to respect a client's wishes, said Steven Pharris, head of Oklahoma's chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
“The changes in laws have kind of criminalized a big part of what we do, so it's changed our role with clients," Pharris said. “It's created a chilling effect on what we can and can't say."
At one point, librarians in Oklahoma City were warned not to even say the word “abortion,” though that changed after the city library system’s team reviewed the laws, said Larry White, the system’s head.
White says staff has since been instructed to handle requests for information about abortion like any other reference question, where they provide factual, sourced information and answer questions about the subject. Some staffers remain uneasy, though.
“There are a lot of unknowns," White said. “We do not want to put our staff in any way in any danger of receiving civil liabilities under this law if we can prevent it. We also have an obligation to protect them and the organization from civil liability."