OKLAHOMA CITY — When Oklahoma implemented a near-total abortion ban hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Keri Young knew the strict law would be problematic for pregnant women carrying a terminally ill fetus.
Six years ago, she was one of those women.
Keri and Royce Young’s daughter, Eva, was diagnosed with a rare birth defect that meant she had no chance of survival. Keri Young carried her daughter to term in order to donate her organs.
Oklahoma’s abortion ban now limits options for mothers carrying a child that won’t survive outside the womb, but Keri Young and her husband are working with an anti-abortion state lawmaker to try and change that.
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“It’s an unintended consequence of the blanket abortion laws that went into effect in our state,” Royce Young said.
After enacting some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the nation, Oklahoma Republicans are now seeking exceptions to legalize the procedure in rare situations.
The Youngs are working with House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, on a bill that would allow for a woman whose fetus has a fatal condition to go into labor early. Early induction of a live birth prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy — when a woman reaches full term — is currently considered an illegal abortion, Keri Young said.
Eva was born at 37 weeks in a stillbirth. Keri Young said if she had induced early, she would have been able to hold her daughter while she was still breathing.
Keri Young, who co-founded an Oklahoma City group called Support for Infant Loss, wants parents to have the option to induce early so they can spend precious moments with their living baby.
Oklahoma’s abortion ban left some women in her support group scrambling.
“They were basically having to wait until 37 weeks to deliver their babies,” she said. “They couldn’t deliver at 35 weeks or 30 weeks in order to see their baby alive. They had to wait until the heart stopped beating to deliver.”
Stillborn births don’t violate the state’s anti-abortion laws.
Lawmakers eye rape, incest exceptions
Multiple GOP legislators filed bills this year to allow abortions in instances of rape or incest, something Gov. Kevin Stitt already indicated he would sign.
State law prohibits abortions except those necessary to save the life of a woman experiencing a medical emergency. A related law that is enforced by civil lawsuits allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion at any point in her pregnancy. The latter already includes exceptions for women seeking an abortion due to rape or incest if they have reported the crime to law enforcement.
Sen. Julie Daniels, who has previously introduced numerous anti-abortion bills, wants those same exemptions to apply to the state’s criminal ban on abortion. Noting lawmakers haven’t coordinated much in their previous efforts to outlaw abortion, Daniels, R-Bartlesville, said her Senate Bill 834 is an attempt to clarify and standardize state law.
Critics of the state’s anti-abortion laws have argued GOP lawmakers passed a slate of contradictory and confusing laws last year.
Daniels said her bill is an attempt to take a more moderate anti-abortion stance that is politically in tune with what a majority of Oklahomans want. Polling from Oklahoma City’s Amber Integrated shows most Oklahomans support abortion exceptions in instances of rape or incest.
“We make it clear to Oklahomans these are the exceptions we believe we can tolerate given that the state’s population as whole may be more in the middle than some of us,” Daniels said. “We’re trying to reflect what we believe Oklahomans actually believe and also trying to protect the lives of as many unborn as we can.”
Her bill also clarifies the state’s abortion ban does not prohibit contraceptives or in vitro fertilization, nor does it prohibit medical professionals from removing an ectopic pregnancy. SB 834 defines when an abortion might be allowed in a “medical emergency” and says physicians can exercise “reasonable medical judgment” in making that decision.
Opinions differ on proposed exceptions
Exceptions for rape or incest that require a woman to report to law enforcement don’t really count because few victims will go to the police, said House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City.
Munson gave Daniels credit for trying to clarify the state’s abortion ban so physicians know when they can and cannot perform the procedure. But adding exceptions doesn’t go far enough, she said.
“The fight we’re fighting is trying to restore the bodily autonomy of individual Oklahomans, and that when they need access to health care, they should be able to access it,” Munson said. “We shouldn’t be eliminating it or making a certain type of health care available only after a traumatic event has happened to you.”
In a gubernatorial debate last year, Stitt said he would sign legislation to allow for abortions in cases of rape and incest. He recently doubled down on that pledge.
But Daniels’ bill and similar legislation from Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, will face pushback from some Republicans.
Rep. Jim Olsen, who authored the state’s abortion ban, said he will oppose adding any new exceptions to the law.
“I don’t believe that it’s wise to have exceptions for rape, incest and sexual assault,” Olsen said. “As bad as those things are, there’s still a baby involved. The baby’s right to life does not change based on the quality of its parents.”
Olsen didn’t propose any new abortion restrictions this year, but he expressed concerns that people are able to skirt the state’s ban on the procedure by receiving abortion pills in the mail.