Before the federal government suspended Oklahoma’s family planning funding, state health officials refused to refer patients to a national hotline that provided information about abortion. Officials from the Oklahoma State Department of Health instead wanted to share a federal website with patients that doesn’t directly provide information on abortion, but does link to another government website on reproductive rights.
All-Options is a California-based nonprofit that offers information on reproductive health through the free All-Options Talk Line. The group’s website also includes links to organizations that provide information on pregnancy and adoption, as well as how to access abortion services and abortion pills.
The state health department briefly changed its policy to include the All-Options Talk Line as a resource, as suggested by the federal government. But it shifted its stance again more than a month later in May when it informed federal employees that it wouldn’t be able to provide that referral because of an Oklahoma law that makes helping a woman obtain an abortion a felony. The State Department of Health lost the federal funding in June over its refusal to comply.
These details come from more than eight months of communications that the Frontier requested, revealing unsuccessful negotiations between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s office sued last week to challenge the grant suspension, arguing that the federal government overstepped the bounds of Title X, a federal family planning program. Federal law says that program funding can’t be used to provide abortion, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has added rules that require clinics to provide abortion information and referrals if a patient requests it.
The State Department of Health will continue to work with the Attorney General’s office to reinstate the federal funding, an agency spokesperson said in a statement.
The state agency is appealing the termination and is using $4.5 million in state money to continue providing family planning services through its health departments. But without Title X funding, minors in Oklahoma have lost access to confidential services at county clinics unless they get a parent’s permission.
After the federal government suspended funding, county health departments across the state also lost federally sponsored discounts for family planning drugs and devices, requiring state officials to find other ways to cover the costs, according to the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the agency’s created a committee to review the appeal.
Parker Dockray, the executive director of All-Options, said most callers are already familiar with their range of pregnancy options, and that hotline workers never recommend any option over another.
Dockray said some clients have been confused about whether abortion is available in their state. Peer counselors can remind patients that they can leave their state for the procedure if needed. But Dockray acknowledged that’s not an option for everyone.
“Every person should have the right to make that decision for themselves,” Dockray said. “And certainly they should have the right to information about the options, even in a state that has decided they’re going to make one of those options illegal.”
The federal government announced plans earlier this year to create a similar hotline that would offer comprehensive options counseling to patients across the country, but a spokesperson for the Health and Human Services department said the American Rescue Plan Act dollars that would have funded the project were taken back by Congress.
Meanwhile, the federal government has sent the State Department of Health’s share of Title X funding to the nonprofit Missouri Family Health Council. The Missouri organization isn’t a direct service provider, but is working to coordinate a network of Oklahoma clinics that can provide confidential services to minors and other family planning resources independent from county departments.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office argues in the lawsuit that the funding transfer has made the state’s appeal “futile.” The lawsuit also claims that the Missouri organization would likely be in violation of state law if it provides abortion counseling in Oklahoma, which could result in criminal charges.
State guidance that former Attorney General John O’Connor issued last year states that law enforcement should protect free speech, but could consider pursuing cases where a person advised or encouraged a woman to get an abortion, especially if they took “tangible action” to assist them.
Missouri Family Health Council executive director Michelle Trupiano, whose organization also coordinates Title X services for Missouri, said in October that providers never recommend one pregnancy option over another. Programs can give information about abortion providers, but they can’t take other steps like making an appointment or providing transportation.