Court blocks Oklahoma’s COVID-19 abortion ban

Federal court says Oklahoma abortion providers can resume care, blocking the state’s order to halt abortions during the pandemic.

Today a federal district judge in Oklahoma granted a temporary restraining order at the request of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Dechert LLP, allowing providers to continue time-sensitive, essential abortion care in spite of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s order requiring all elective surgeries and minor medical procedures be postponed. He singled out abortion care in a press release, claiming the order prohibited abortions in the state. Today’s ruling allows medication abortions to resume in the state, along with abortion procedures for patients who would  be pushed beyond the gestation limit for care.

In his decision, federal district Judge Charles Goodwin wrote that the state of Oklahoma, “has acted in an ‘unreasonable,’ ‘arbitrary,’ and ‘oppressive’ way—and imposed an ‘undue burden’ on abortion access—in imposing requirements that effectively deny a right of access to abortion.” Orders like these have forced some patients to travel hundreds of miles in a pandemic just to access basic and essential health care.

“The court has stopped Governor Stitt from exploiting this devastating pandemic as a weapon in his battle to ban abortion,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Abortion is time-sensitive, essential healthcare. Women in Oklahoma are again able, for the time being, to access abortion care in their state at a time when travel is even more challenging.”

“It’s a huge relief that we can start seeing patients again, at least for now,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women. “We hope the court will keep the ban blocked so our patients aren’t forced to travel to other states to find abortion care at a time when travel is risky and discouraged.”

"Though this is a relief for patients, they should have never had to wait for a judge to rule before accessing the time-sensitive care they needed. Gov. Stitt is wasting valuable time and resources using the COVID-19 pandemic to score political points,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “To politicians and anti-abortion groups playing political games amid a pandemic, let this be a lesson to you that we won’t allow you to put our patients and the community at risk.”

“Planned Parenthood is committed to ensuring that every person is able to get the essential health care they need,” McGill Johnson continued. “But the same cannot be said for Gov. Stitt. Planned Parenthood will work day by day, week by week to safeguard the ability of patients and the community to access essential health care, no matter what.”

“Today’s ruling is important because our patients need and deserve access to abortion care,” said Brandon Hill, Ph.D., president and CEO of Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “Abortion is an essential and time-sensitive medical procedure that should not be caught in the crosshairs of poltical agendas—especially during this public health crisis. Access to health care is a basic human right, and every person deserves care that gives them control over their own bodies, lives, and futures. Planned Parenthood Great Plains will always be there for our patients. We will do everything in our power to ensure access for patients who need sexual and reproductive health care, including access to abortion.”

Oklahoma is not the first state to attempt to ban abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the ACLU, and other allies have also filed lawsuits in Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas. Temporary restraining orders were also secured in Ohio, Alabama, and Texas. However, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the temporary restraining order in Texas on March 31.

Leading medical organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association (AMA) have opposed these attempts to restrict abortion during the pandemic. The AMA stated, “At this critical moment and every moment, physicians – not politicians – should be the ones deciding which procedures are urgent-emergent and need to be performed, and which ones can wait, in partnership with our patients.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging a host of other abortion restrictions in Oklahoma, including: a ban on the use of telemedicine to provide medication abortion care; a law that forces patients to delay their 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 approximately 14 weeks of pregnancy; and a law requiring doctors to tell patients that some abortions can be “reversed”—a patently false statement.

This lawsuit was filed by T.J. Tu with the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pro-bono counsel Dechert LLP, and local counsel Blake Patton of Walding & Patton PLLC. Plaintiffs in the case are Trust Women—an abortion provider with clinics in Oklahoma and Kansas—Dr. Larry Burns, and Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains—which provides abortion services in Oklahoma and Kansas.

The decision is available here.   

The Gayly. 4/6/2020 @ 2:27 p.m. CST.