Frontline workers fear repercussions from abortion laws

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The strict anti-abortion laws that went into effect in Oklahoma this year prompted the rapid closure of all abortion facilities in the state, but left questions for those who work directly with women who may seek their advice or help. to get an abortion. abortion out of state.

Beyond profound repercussions As abortion laws affect health care, especially reproductive medicine, clergy members, social workers, and even librarians have raised concerns about being exposed to criminal or civil liability just for talking about it.

Those fears are well founded, says Joseph Thai, a University of Oklahoma professor who teaches constitutional law and the Supreme Court. He described Oklahoma’s new anti-abortion laws, which include criminal and civil penalties, as the nation’s strictest yet and far-reaching in both substance and scope.

The US Supreme Court decision in june annul Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutional right of women to abortion activated immediately a Oklahoma Act of 1910 which makes it a serious crime, punishable by two to five years in prison, for any person who “advises” or provides any other means for a woman to obtain an abortion. That law allows abortion only to save the life of the mother.

“Such all-encompassing language can make anyone who helps a woman get an abortion or provides information about abortion access, including a spouse, another family member, a friend, a classmate or co-worker, a librarian or even an Uber Driver: a criminal,” said Thai. “Similarly, employers who have agreed to pay for their employees’ abortions as part of their reproductive health coverage and their insurance companies face criminal liability.”

Although Alabama, Arizona and Texas have laws that prohibit “aiding and abetting” a woman to have an abortion, Oklahoma’s is the strictest and the only one currently in effect, said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, which supports the right to abortion.

While previous providers in Oklahoma may have stopped abortions, they haven’t stopped giving advice.

Emily Wales, executive director of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said giving a pregnant woman information about abortion care is protected by free speech protections in the Constitution.

“We’ve heard from providers who aren’t sure if they can make referrals, even if they can tell people to go to the Planned Parenthood website or abortionfinder.com,” Wales said. “We don’t think there’s any controversy about being able to tell people what their options are and that they can access care in another state.”

Others, however, are more concerned. No charges have been filed in the seven weeks since the law prohibiting counseling or assisting a woman with an abortion took effect, and it is not known if anyone is being investigated. Messages left with various Oklahoma prosecutors about how they plan to enforce anti-abortion laws were not returned, and the head of the state’s District Attorneys Council, Kathryn Boyle Brewer, said prosecutors have not formally discussed the issue in their meetings. regular meetings. .

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican who wrote the trigger bill, said he believes those who help a woman have an abortion should be prosecuted, though he said prosecutors are unlikely to go after relatives of a pregnant woman.

“Absolutely, if you’re going to aid and be an accessory to a serious crime, you need to be held accountable,” Treat said. “Where the biggest issue is where these corporations are offering to pay $4,000 to help you kill an unborn life and knowingly circumvent Oklahoma statutes.

“Since this has been in place, there has been no prosecution. The good news is that people are not having abortions in Oklahoma, and so far there has not been a case where someone is aiding and abetting in such a way that they can be prosecuted.”

a separate law passed by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature this year that was inspired by a texas law allows anyone to sue “any person” who aids and abets a woman in obtaining an abortion for a minimum award of $10,000 plus attorneys’ fees.

“Notably, none of these criminal or civil laws limit their language to abortions performed in Oklahoma,” added Thai. “So anyone in Oklahoma who helps a woman get an abortion outside of Oklahoma, like in neighboring Kansas, could be prosecuted or sued under these sweeping laws.”

The Rev. Lori Walke, senior minister at the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, said that has left some religious leaders wondering about their potential legal exposure to helping women navigate abortion services.

“Among my colleagues, the conversation has been, ‘This is a risk we have to be willing to take because abortion bans are against our religion,’ to put it bluntly,” Walke said, adding that sometimes the job defense of religious leaders includes the possibility of arrest and imprisonment.

Similar concerns are being raised by social workers, many of whom believe the ban on counseling women about abortion services conflicts with their code of ethics that requires them to respect a client’s wishes, said Steven Pharris, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the National Association of Social Services. Workers.

“Changes in the law have criminalized a lot of what we do, so our role with customers has changed,” Pharris said. “It has created a chilling effect on what we can and cannot say.”

At a point, librarians in oklahoma city They were warned not to even say the word “abortion,” though that changed after the city’s library system team reviewed the laws, said Larry White, the system’s director.

White says staff have since been instructed to treat abortion information requests like any other referral questions, providing factual and source information and answering questions about the topic. However, some staff members remain uneasy.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” White said. “We do not want to put our staff in any way in danger of receiving civil responsibilities under this law if we can avoid it. We also have an obligation to protect them and the organization from civil liability.”

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