Oklahoma’s Supreme Court said on Wednesday that two laws passed last year that ban most abortions are unconstitutional.
But the ruling does not affect a law passed in 1910 which still prohibits most abortions in the state, unless they are necessary to save the life of the mother.
The laws that were struck down by the court were civil laws that had relied on suits from private citizens to enforce them. Both had made exceptions for cases involving a “medical emergency.”
But the justices took issue with that language in their 6-3 ruling, which suggested that the exceptions were too narrow. They maintained that a woman has a constitutional right to end a pregnancy in order to save her life, without specifying the need for a medical emergency.
Demonstrators gathered in Tulsa, Okla., after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.Credit…Mike Simons/Tulsa World, via Associated Press
Why It Matters
Oklahoma is among a number of Republican-led states that moved to ban abortion in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. Legal challenges were quick to follow, and many cases ended up before state supreme courts. Those courts have become critical arbiters in deciding abortion access, and a new political front in the nation’s abortion battles. In some conservative states, courts have decided that their state constitutions protect abortion rights.
The decision also highlighted legal complications around how abortion restrictions and exceptions might be interpreted in cases where a woman’s life is at risk. Doctors in other states with abortion bans said they have struggled to provide care for patients without breaking the law.
“We hope that this decision provides some clarity, and that doctors can move forward,” said Rabia Muqaddam of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who was the lead lawyer for the groups challenging the law. “Now they can provide care to patients who are facing difficult health circumstances, and they can rely on their medical judgment.”
Challenges to Oklahoma’s anti-abortion laws were filed by abortion rights organizations including Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, a nonprofit volunteer organization based in Oklahoma City, and medical practitioners including the Tulsa Women’s Reproductive Clinic.
The laws that were struck down on Wednesday had been modeled on legislation that took effect in Texas in 2021, which banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, and relied on civilian instead of criminal enforcement to work around court challenges.
Another law passed in Oklahoma last year, which had made it a felony to perform an abortion “except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency,” was struck down by the state’s Supreme Court in March. In their opinion on Wednesday, the justices cited their March decision, which was similarly concerned with the potential for strict interpretations of the term “medical emergency.”
Abortion is still largely illegal in Oklahoma because of the 1910 law that came back into effect when Roe was overturned.
“Except for certain circumstances outlined in that statute, abortion is still unlawful in the State of Oklahoma,” Gentner Drummond, the state’s attorney general, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“This ruling, while providing clarity in emergency situations, does not change the landscape of care significantly,” said Emily Wales, the president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which was among the organizations that challenged the laws.