US Supreme Court Ruling Raises Questions About Oklahoma Law
A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down restrictions on abortion clinics in Texas has brought new attention to a similar law in Oklahoma that is also being challenged.
It also has raised new questions about the Republican-controlled Legislature's focus on a conservative social agenda that includes anti-abortion legislation when other areas of state government, including the state budget and funding for public education, are suffering.
On Monday, the nation's highest court voted 5-3 to invalidate a 2013 law that required doctors who perform abortions in Texas to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and required clinics to meet hospital-like outpatient surgery standards.
Supporters argued that the law was needed to protect women's health, but opponents said it was an attempt to make it harder for women to get abortions by forcing the closure of more than half of about 40 clinics that operated in Texas before the law took effect.
In Oklahoma, a law adopted in 2014 that incorporated the admitting-privileges requirement for abortion clinics is being challenged by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which has said the law threatens to shut down one of only two abortion providers in the state. The Oklahoma law is on hold while the Oklahoma Supreme Court studies the issue.
Oklahoma's law is "virtually identical" to the Texas statute and is "presumptively unconstitutional," said Genevieve Scott, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights and part of the litigation team that is challenging the Oklahoma statute.
"Just like (the Texas) requirement, it serves no health or safety purpose," Scott said.
Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, which plans to open an abortion clinic in Oklahoma City this summer, said the nation's highest court has repeatedly upheld a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy and said states can't enact unreasonable burdens for women to exercise that right.
"A woman has a right to reproductive services, meaning abortion care," Burkhart said.
She said the Oklahoma Legislature's continuous focus on unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation diverts its attention from managing the funding and adequacy of vital public services.
"Public education is a big deal. Why aren't we fully funding public education?" Burkhart said. "These are things that frustrate us."
Scott said: "It's a shame that politicians would focus attention on this issue over and over again rather than focus on the important issues."
Since 2011, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has signed 18 laws that restrict a woman's access to reproductive health care services. The Center for Reproductive Rights has filed legal challenges against eight of those measures in the last four years.
"There has been an absolute avalanche of restrictions passed over the last few years," Scott said.
At the same time, state Department of Education records indicate that public school funding has been cut in four of the last nine years. The public school budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1 is $105 million less than it was in 2009 despite enrollment increasing by 43,500 students, according to the Education Department.
Oklahoma ranked 48th in teacher pay and 49th in spending per student among all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the National Education Association.
This year alone, state government has declared two revenue failures blamed largely on falling oil and natural gas prices following years of cuts to income tax rates and oil and gas production tax rates supported by Fallin and GOP lawmakers.
"The people of Oklahoma have watched what the Republican Legislature has done," said Sarah Baker, communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party. "The Legislature is not addressing the issues of how we deal with our revenue stream, how we fund public education. The people are tired of that."
Pam Pollard, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, did not return phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
A principal author of the Oklahoma admitting-privileges law, Republican Rep. Randy Grau of Edmond, also did not return a call for comment. But GOP Rep. Pam Peterson of Tulsa, who has authored other anti-abortion legislation, said GOP lawmakers worked hard during the 2016 legislative session to address the downturn in the state budget and public education needs.
"We spent a lot of time discussing all of these issues. It's not an either-or," Peterson said. "I always think standing up for life is the right thing to do. Without life, education and all these other issues we talk about wouldn't matter."
Although she is term-limited and will leave the Legislature this year, Peterson indicated anti-abortion legislation will likely remain a top priority for Republican lawmakers.
"There are a lot of legislators that are pro-life," she said. "They will do a lot of good work."