Appeals court upholds ruling allowing abortion in Oklahoma amid coronavirus pandemic

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Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a press conference in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 where the State of Oklahoma has amassed it stockpile of personal protection equipment and medical supplies for the State’s COVID-19 response. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Medication abortions, which end an early pregnancy with pills, and some surgical abortions may continue in Oklahoma during the coronavirus pandemic after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling partially blocking Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order suspending most abortions.

The decision by a three-person panel on Monday evening allows federal Judge Charles Goodwin’s order issued on April 6 to standwhich partially and temporarily blocked the state’s ban on most abortions during the pandemic. The appeals court refused to take on the issue. 

Stitt on March 24 placed a suspension on all nonessential medical procedures in the state amid the pandemic in an effort to reserve hospital resources. He clarified on March 27 that abortions were included in that order but said the ban did not extend to abortions in which the mother’s life was in danger.

Less than a week later, abortion providers and advocates filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s order and argued it effectively banned abortion care in the state. The suit sought a temporary restraining order, and eventually a permanent injunction to stop the state from enforcing the governor’s order, which is set to expire April 30. 

Goodwin’s order granting a temporary restraining order said the state had acted in an “unreasonable” and “oppressive” way by restricting abortion access. The restraining order, which expires April 20, bars the state from enforcing a temporary ban on medication abortions, in which a woman ingests pills to end a pregnancy. 

The order also prohibits the state from enforcing a ban on some surgical abortions. The ban cannot be enforced if a woman who is currently eligible for a surgical abortion will lose that eligibility after the order expires, Goodwin wrote.

Nonemergency abortions are prohibited under Oklahoma law when the woman is 20 or more weeks pregnant. Goodwin wrote that Stitt’s order would effectively eliminate a woman’s ability to get an abortion if the order postponed the procedure past that timeframe.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter had immediately appealed Goodwin’s decision.

“It’s disheartening that the 10th Circuit failed to recognize that real lives will be harmed if courts unlawfully block common sense orders to fight COVID-19, like delaying elective procedures and preserving our healthcare resources during this pandemic,” Hunter said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

“We plan to evaluate our options and will move forward accordingly.”

The temporary restraining order expires April 20, but abortion providers said in a news release Monday they plan to seek a preliminary injunction from the district court that will continue to block the enforcement of the ban until the cases concludes. 

“It’s not hard to understand that abortion is time sensitive and cannot wait,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, in a statement. “We are open and taking serious precautions to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and community.”

Oklahoma is not the only state in the midst of an abortion access battle.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the ACLU, and other organizations have filed lawsuits in multiple states, such as Ohio, Alabama and Iowa. 

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

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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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