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Oklahoma Supreme Court clarifies medical exemptions in the state's abortion ban

The Oklahoma Supreme Court
Kateleigh Mills
/
KOSU
The Oklahoma Supreme Court

The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a ruling Tuesday, stating definitively that Oklahomans have a right to life-saving abortions, whether there’s an emergency or not.

The ruling was a 5-4 decision. The majority argued that Oklahomans have a right to life, and that forcing them to wait for their life-saving abortions until there is a medical emergency further endangers their lives. The minority argued that Oklahoma’s constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to an abortion any time, and that the Legislature acted appropriately when it limited abortions to imminent medical emergencies.

When lawmakers passed several bills banning abortion last year, they included an exception for medical emergencies. The wording was vague. It didn’t have a list of qualifying conditions. Medical and legal experts raised concerns that this would leave doctors wondering how much danger was enough to protect them from a decade in prison.

Abortion access advocates filed several lawsuits last year challenging the bans in an effort to get them overturned. In the ruling Tuesday, the Court said it would not rule on elective abortions. The other lawsuits are still under consideration.

But it did rule on abortions in life-threatening situations.

“Requiring one to wait until there is a medical emergency would further endanger the life of the pregnant woman and does not serve a compelling state interest,” the majority opinion reads in part.

When lawmakers pass laws, the bills contain a section with definitions. That’s for situations like this one, where the terms could mean a lot of different things, and the meaning affects how the law is enforced.

Here’s the abortion bans’ definition of medical emergency: A condition which cannot be remedied by the delivery of the child in which an abortion is necessary to preserve the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness or physical injury including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.

When talking about abortions in life-threatening situations versus medical emergencies, there’s a go-to example. A pregnant patient is diagnosed with cancer, and they have to either have an abortion or give birth before starting treatment like chemotherapy or radiation. If the law allows abortions in life-threatening situations generally, there is no doubt the exception would allow that patient to get an abortion. But if it has to be a medical emergency, it’s up in the air.

"We read this section of law to require a woman to be in actual present danger in order for her to obtain a medically necessary abortion” the opinion reads in part. “We know of no other law that requires one to wait until there is an actual emergency in order to receive treatment.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt criticized the decision in a press release Tuesday afternoon.

"I wholeheartedly disagree with this activist majority's opinion creating a right to an abortion in Oklahoma," his statement reads in part. “Alarmingly, this activist majority acted out of hand by making a policy decision that belongs to the people.”

He also criticized the majority because it didn’t use the word “unborn” in the 20-page opinion.

Abortion access advocates also criticized the opinion, arguing it didn’t go far enough to protect Oklahomans’ rights.

“Oklahomans deserve better. Our state Supreme Court’s decision leaves abortion care out of reach for many, especially those who already face systemic barriers to medical care,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, co-chair, Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice.

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Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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