Citing 'Irreparable Harm,' Federal Judge Blocks Oklahoma Attempt to Ban Abortion During Pandemic

Pro-choice supporters and staff of Planned Parenthood hold a rally outside the Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services Center in St. Louis, Missouri, May 31, 2019, the last location in the state performing abortions, after a U.S. court announced the clinic could continue operating. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Citing 'Irreparable Harm,' Federal Judge Blocks Oklahoma Attempt to Ban Abortion During Pandemic

"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."

Reproductive rights advocates celebrated on Monday after U.S. District Judge Charles Goodwin granted a temporary restraining order against the state of Oklahoma's ban on abortions during the coronavirus pandemic on the grounds that denying the right to the medical procedures would cause "imminent, irreparable harm" to state residents.

"Today's ruling is important because our patients need and deserve access to abortion care," said Brandon Hill, 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 political agendas--especially during this public health crisis."

Planned Parenthood's national acting president Alexis McGill Johnson also welcomed the decision in a tweet Monday and warned anti-choice politicians that rights advocates "won't allow you to put our patients and the community at risk."

The judge's ruling came in response to a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, challenging an executive order (pdf) that Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed last month temporarily outlawing all elective surgeries--and which included abortions in that category--because of the ongoing virus outbreak.

Goodwin ruled (pdf) that "the prohibition on medication abortions may not be enforced" and "the prohibition on surgical abortions may not be enforced with respect to any patient who will lose her right to lawfully obtain an abortion in Oklahoma on or before the date of expiration of the executive order," which is in effect until April 30.

According to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, Oklahoma requires patients seeking abortions to endure state-direct counseling, prohibits telemedicine for administering medication abortions, imposes "unnecessary and burdensome standards" on clinics, and bans most abortions after 20 postfertilization.

The reprieve for reproductive rights in Oklahoma came after federal judges prevented the Republican-led governments of three other states--Alabama, Ohio, and Texas--from imposing similar pandemic-related bans last week. NARAL Pro-Choice America called the Texas ruling, which came first and was later overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, "an important recognition of what we know to be true--abortion care is essential healthcare."

But even in states that haven't imposed additional restrictions during the outbreak, seeking out an abortion under current circumstances can still be "brutal," according to a firsthand account published Friday by Glamour. After detailing some of the battles women in other places are facing, Jennifer H., a New York state resident, wrote of the "trauma" she endured while obtaining the procedure:

Like many women during the best of times, I had to call gynecologist after gynecologist to find someone who took my health insurance (a form of Medicaid that isn't accepted by many doctors) and could squeeze me into their schedule as soon as possible. And when I finally found one who would see me, the whole process was put into hyperspeed since no one knew if the federal government would force clinics nationwide to shut down. There was no time to process what was going on. Some nurses seemed to treat me more as a walking germ to be cautiously handled than a patient. One turned to me and said, "I really wouldn't want to be you right now."

Jennifer H. noted that she "wanted to opt for a dilation and curettage procedure, also known as a D&C or surgical abortion," but the clinic suggested a medication abortion so she didn't have to schedule the procedure for a later date during such uncertain times. The medication caused her to spend "days throwing up, bleeding heavily, and experiencing 'labor-like' cramps" while trying to keep the procedure a secret from relatives she was staying with during quarantine.

Experts and advocates who Jennifer H. interviewed pushed back against the claims that abortion isn't essential or that supposedly temporary restrictions on the procedure are meant to help conserve personal protective equipment (PPE). They also pointed out that access to abortion services may become even more essential during the outbreak.

"The reasons people seek abortions do not go away during a pandemic," said Jen Villavicencio, M.D., an ob-gyn, abortion caregiver, and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. "There will still be health concerns, severe fetal diagnoses, financial barriers, desires to preserve family resources, and many other very important, well-thought-out reasons--in fact, many of these reasons and needs will likely increase during times of crisis."

This post has been updated with information about a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on Texas banning abortion during the coronavirus pandemic.

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