The XX Factor

Oklahoma’s Bill to Make Abortion a Felony Is a Stupid Gambit the State Can’t Afford

Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin in Washington, D.C. on January 15, 2014.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Update, May 20, 2016: On Friday afternoon, Gov. Fallin vetoed SB 1552.

Oklahoma’s legislature passed a bill on Thursday to make the provision of abortion a felony in the state. Lawmakers in most red states are at least nominally surreptitious in their efforts to undermine Roe v. Wade, claiming that their foremost concern is protecting women’s health and arguing that their policies are compatible with the right to abortion. But Oklahoma has dispensed with any pretense of obeying federal law. “Give Oklahoma lawmakers points, at least, for honesty,” the New York Times’ editorial board wrote recently. “They wanted to ban abortion, so they voted effectively to do just that.” 

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin hasn’t commented on whether she will sign SB 1552, under which any doctor caught performing an abortion would be stripped of his or her medical license, disqualified from applying for a new one in the state, and sentenced to up to three years in prison. The bill would only make exceptions when a pregnancy endangered a woman’s life; abortions in cases of rape and incest, or to protect a woman’s health in non-life-threatening situations, would all be illegal. Fallin also has a second abortion-related bill on her desk: HB 3128, which would ban women from seeking abortions for reasons of fetal anomaly.

“[T]ogether these bills would shutter the doors of every clinic in the state and put the procedure completely out of reach for most women,” NARAL Pro-Choice American President Ilyse Hogue wrote in a letter to Fallin on Thursday, urging her to veto the bills. “I realize that you do not share the same view as seven in 10 Americans who believe that abortion should be legal and available. But can we not agree, as the majority of Americans do, that elected officials should be spending their time and taxpayer resources on pressing policy matters—rather than the obsessive focus on dismantling our reproductive rights?”  

Fallin has consistently demonstrated the “obsessive focus” Hogue describes. In a state with among the worst health and educational outcomes in the country—and which “ranks dead last … on overall indicators of women’s and children’s health and well-being,” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights—she has found the time to sign 18 bills restricting access to abortion and other reproductive healthcare since she assumed the state’s top office in 2011. Though most of the laws have been blocked by the courts, the ones that took effect—including a ban on abortion at or after 20 weeks, a law that health plans sold on the state’s exchange can’t cover the procedure unless women purchase an additional rider, and a mandated waiting period that lawmakers extended this month to 72 hours—have forced three of the state’s five abortion providers to close during the course of Fallin’s tenure.

If Fallin signs the outright ban on her desk, its chances of being enacted will remain roughly zero. The Center for Reproductive Rights, which has sued the state eight times in the last six years over abortion-related legislation, would likely do so again; CRR wrote to Fallin today, calling the bill “blatantly unconstitutional.” As the Huffington Post’s Samantha Lachman trenchantly wrote: “This new measure criminalizing performing abortions is largely symbolic—except for taxpayers, who will shoulder the burden of defending it in court.”

That’s a burden that Oklahoma can in no way afford. Free-falling oil prices have left the state in financial crisis: A budget shortfall that was projected at $900 million in 2015 climbed to $1.3 billion in 2016, roughly 20 percent of last year’s spending. Fallin’s preferred method for balancing the budget is to cut health care and schools: Reuters reports that Oklahoma’s $3 billion education budget has been cut by $58 million since January.

It’s hard to say whether this unfolding calamity will inspire Fallin to avoid a costly lawsuit. She’s halfway through the second of two possible terms as her state’s chief executive and is speculated to be a top contender for the dubious honor of being Donald Trump’s running mate. In other words, she may not have much to lose. The legal and financial headache she could create by signing SB 1552 could easily outlast her time in office. In the process, it would harm not just women, but every taxpayer in Oklahoma.