Oklahoma Needs Healthcare Champions, Not Constitutional Con Artists

While most Oklahomans are aware that our legislature is meeting, it can be hard to follow along with what exactly is happening--so much of what goes on inside the Capitol is shrouded in layers of process and jargon. So, for months at a time legislators move their priorities through the various chambers, titles move on and off, amendments are submitted with little time to review, and major deadlines mean sometimes more than 100 bills are heard in a day. A handful of bills get signed into law in these early months, but often it seems like a sprint to get bills across the final hurdles as a state budget is wrapped up in May, and the public gets toplines of the best and the worst through legislative wrap up articles or coverage around effective dates. In an election year, all of that seems especially true, with many bills moving along party lines for the sake of partisan talking points and political scorecards. But then, you have bills like Senate Bill 1728, which poses an entirely different kind of danger. 

SB 1728 is what is commonly referred to as a “TRAP” law – Targeted Restriction on Abortion Providers. The details of TRAP laws can be wonky and complicated, but their goals are simple: circumvent Roe v. Wade, provide a back door for lawmakers to curtail abortion access, and push reproductive health services out of reach. In prior years, Oklahoma enacted a number of other TRAP laws, largely copied and pasted from organizations that oppose access to abortion care, Several of these previous TRAP laws are currently being challenged in the courts. 

SB 1728 is not the only legislation introduced this session designed to attack abortion access. For instance, SB 1859 would create a ban on abortion at 6 weeks, legislation that has clearly been found unconstitutional across the country. In the case of SB 1728, it may seem less threatening on the surface; however, the proposal creates significant obstacles to providing abortion services. The authors have created burdensome liabilities for abortion care providers, aimed at not only forcing more medically unnecessary, bureaucratic paper trails, but also imposing civil liabilities that make it difficult to recruit and retain abortion care providers. 

But it’s exactly because SB 1728 seems less threatening than the 6-week abortion ban that we have to pay very close attention. By creating regulations that seem technical and bureaucratic to most Oklahomans, SB 1728 avoids the kind of widespread public scrutiny that more outright bans produce. Cloaked in the language of health care and legal liability, the regulations this bill impose on abortion providers are costly, if not impossible to meet. Unlike the stated intent of the bill, these regulations don’t make anyone safer and put politics ahead of healthcare in the doctor-patient relationship. 

During floor debate, when pushed on the fiscal impact of likely litigation challenging the constitutionality of the bill, author Senator Bullard noted that the state would not incur litigation costs because a firm has already offered to defend the bill in court. Senator Bullard noted that in a meeting with Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office, he had been informed that law firm could be deputized to represent the state. Pushed on whether the specific constitutionality of the bill was discussed, Senator Bullard couldn’t recall. And when further pushed on who had offered their legal services on this bill, Senator Bullard wouldn’t disclose. Of course, the law firm’s offer to provide free legal representation does not take into account the cost to the State in the event it loses the litigation -- those costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if all of this sounds suspicious to you, it should. SB 1728 is not just designed to limit access to abortion care in Oklahoma, it’s part of a broader strategy to challenge Roe v. Wade in what anti-abortion groups view as a more openly partisan court, potentially willing to roll back rights and liberties around healthcare decisions related to abortion care. 

Overturning Roe v. Wade outright is unpopular. According to a 2019 poll, only 13 percent of Americans support overturning the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision that recognized legal abortion as a constitutional right. Our state is facing a flat budget year, and what looks like financially tight times ahead. Oklahoma still faces crises with regard to healthcare access, per-pupil funding, and a continually growing rate of incarceration in our already overcrowded prisons. Oklahoma voters need legislators focused on data-driven best-practices that best meet our most urgent needs, not serving the interests of out-of-state groups who seek to limit access to medical care and game the court system to limit the rights of individuals in making healthcare decisions. 

SB 1728 passed off of the Senate floor by a vote of 37-9 on March 5. It will next be sent to the House, where it will be sent to a committee for a hearing. We encourage concerned constituents to call House leadership, your representative, and House Sponsor, Representative Tom Gann, to ask the House focus on meeting the needs of Oklahomans, not on SB 1728.