Abortion providers and rights groups sue Oklahoma over COVID-19 related suspension

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The Oklahoma State Capitol BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
The Oklahoma State Capitol BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
Abortion rights groups announced a lawsuit on Monday against top Oklahoma officials challenging an order Gov. Kevin Stitt issued last week that placed a moratorium on most abortions in the state.

In a press release on Monday evening, state and national abortion rights groups and providers announced they filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order, and eventually a permanent injunction to stop the state from enforcing the governor’s order. The federal lawsuit, which was filed in the Western District of Oklahoma, argues the state’s order effectively bans abortion care in the state.

The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood Federation of America filed the lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of Trust Women Oklahoma City, Dr. Larry Burns, who is the medical director of a Norman abortion clinic, and  Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood of the Great Plains.

The two-week suspension of nonessential and elective procedures, which Stitt on Friday clarified also applied to abortions, was enacted in an effort to reserve hospital resources and protective gear needed to handle an expected influx of COVID-19 patients. Stitt said the ban did not extend to abortions in which the mother’s life was in danger.

Abortion rights groups in the state were quick to push back on the order, saying state officials were using the pandemic as an excuse to “shutter abortion access.”  

Officials named in the lawsuit include Stitt, who is against abortion, and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter. A spokeswoman for the governor referred all questions to the attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit, from Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups, demands an exception to prioritize abortion over all other healthcare in the midst of the COVID-19 emergency in our state.  It attacks the governor’s executive order which preserves limited health care resources and medical safety equipment, in blatant disregard of the escalating illness and death this pandemic is inflicting on Oklahomans,” said Hunter in an emailed statement.

Hunter added: “Make no mistake, this lawsuit will itself drain significant resources, medical and legal, from emergency efforts, and likely, directly and indirectly, bring harm to Oklahomans as a result.”  

The lawsuit argues Stitt’s order violates Roe v. Wade and that “forcing women to travel out of state for abortion care, or to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and give birth, will increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 and undermine the state’s asserted goal of preserving medical resources. “

Brandon Hill, president and CEO of Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said abortion is a time-sensitive medical procedure that should remain accessible.

“In a time when officials should focus on science and data to stem the tide of a public health crisis, it is unconscionable to take any action that would delay or deny access to safe, legal abortion,” Hill said in an emailed statement.

“Emergency orders during a pandemic should advance the health and safety of Oklahomans, not try to score political points by using a national crisis to deny critical health care.”

The state’s suspension of abortion, which is set to expire on April 7, follows other states that recently passed down similar policies amid the pandemic, such as Texas and Ohio. Providers in Texas had a similar response to bans and announced a lawsuit against the state last week. 

The lawsuit also challenges other abortion restrictions in Oklahoma, such as: a ban on the use of telemedicine to provide medication abortion care; a law that requires patients to delay abortion care for at least 72 hours after receiving certain state-mandated information; a “physician-only” law that bans qualified medical professionals from providing medication abortion care; a ban on the standard method of abortion after about 14 weeks of pregnancy; and a law requiring doctors to tell patients that some abortions can be “reversed.”

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other medical groups issued a statement earlier this month recommending that states not restrict abortion care during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care. It is also a time-sensitive service for which a delay of several weeks, or in some cases days, may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible,” the statement said.

As COVID-19 cases surge, state issues sweeping order closing many nonessential businesses

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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