Oklahoma’s laws restricting abortions have created a confusing, contradictory environment that may have a chilling effect on health care, new research says.
After the US Supreme Court overturned the right to an abortion last year with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, several states quickly passed laws that restricted such procedures. A report released Tuesday and described in the medical journal the Lancet finds that the laws in at least one state left workers at many hospitals confused about how to proceed.
When the court made its decision, the Oklahoma law that criminalized abortion in 1910 went back into effect, according to the state’s attorney general. Lawmakers then created multiple overlapping laws that further criminalized abortion and increased penalties for those who performed or assisted in an abortion procedure, according to the new report from Physicians for Human Rights, Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The Oklahoma laws allow abortion in the case of a medical emergency, but one doesn’t define a medical emergency. Another says it allows for the “preservation of life in a medical emergency,” defined as causing “substantial and irreversible body of bodily impairment” – which is not a medical term, experts say.
To understand exactly how well Oklahoma hospitals understood the laws, the researchers used a “secret shopper method,” study co-author Dr. Michele Heisler said.
Researchers posed as prospective patients and called 34 hospitals to ask about the emergency pregnancy care they offered.
Heisler said that when the researchers designed the study, she expected the hospitals to tell the patients that they could get help in an emergency but that a second provider might have to sign off on an abortion or that a doctor would have to get the decision past an “onerous” hospital oversight committee.
“What we weren’t expecting is that there would be so much confusion and contradictory information and really not clear information,” said Heisler, who is medical director at Physicians for Human Rights and a professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan.
The researchers said that none of the hospitals they contacted in Oklahoma was totally able to articulate clear, consistent policies for emergency obstetric care to potential patients.
Specifically, 65% – 22 of the 34 hospitals – were unable to provide information about policies, procedures or the support provided to doctors when it is clinically necessary to terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a pregnant patient.
In 14 of the 22 cases, hospital representatives provided unclear and/or incomplete answers about whether doctors require approval to perform a medically necessary abortion.
Three of the hospitals said they do not provide abortions at all, even though it remains legal in the case of a medical emergency or to “preserve the life” of the pregnant person. Four others provided information that was factually wrong, the report says.
Four hospitals said they had formal approval processes that clinicians must go through if they have a situation in which it is medically necessary to terminate a pregnancy; they cannot make that decision on their own.
Three hospitals indicated that they have policies for these situations but refused to share any information about them.
“Unfortunately, it is being just left up to individual health systems and clinicians to try to make sense of these laws and provide guidance and support,” Heisler said.
The Oklahoma Hospital Association said it has been in conversations with Oklahoma’s medical licensure boards to seek clarity about the state’s conflicting abortion laws.
The association sent guidance to its members in September to explain what it interpreted as “saving the life of a pregnant woman” and what the laws would mean for a person made pregnant through rape or incest, among other issues. The guidance explains that the state’s criminal laws do not make an exception for these circumstances unless it is to save the life of someone who is pregnant in a medical emergency.
The guidance also warns that a person convicted of “administering, prescribing, advising, or procuring a woman to take any medicine drug or substance, or a person convicted of using or employing any instruction or ‘other means whatever,’ with the intent to procure an abortion, shall be guilty of a felony punishable by two (2) to (5) years imprisonment. From August 27, 2022, forward, a person convicted of performing or attempting to perform an abortion shall be guilty of a felony punishable by a fine not to exceed One Hundred Thousand ($100,000.00) and/or imprisonment not to exceed ten (10) years.”
The guidance says the “persons potentially liable” are the provider, not the pregnant person.
Study co-author Rabia Muqaddam, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights who is working on multiple cases challenging the abortion bans in Oklahoma, called the overlapping laws a “bizarre” situation.
“Aside from the fact that there are so many of them is that they all conflict,” she said. “All of the laws have inconsistent definitions, which is where a lot of the confusion comes from for health care providers. What’s most dangerous for patients is the fact that the definitions of medical emergency and life-preserving abortions is unclear and inconsistent.”
“If I was the hospital general counsel and I was looking at these laws, I have absolutely no idea what my physician could or could not do in any particular circumstance,” she said.
When there is a lack of clarity and when penalties are involved, “what you get is massive chill.”
“Physicians are terrified. They’re terrified that if they make the wrong decision, they’re going to go to jail. They’re going to lose their license. And at the other end of that is that patients are being seriously harmed,” Muqaddam said.
Sonia M. Suter, a professor of law at George Washington University who was not involved in the new research, said recent abortion laws have created “such a mess.”
“You are telling physicians that they have two conflicting obligations,” said Suter, whose scholarship focuses on issues at the intersection of law, medicine and bioethics, with a particular focus on reproductive rights.
There is an obligation to stabilize patients in emergencies that may not always qualify as “life-threatening,” but doctors and hospitals could also risk being sued because the doctors are not following the standard of care, “which you can’t do with how some of these exceptions are worded.”
She said hospitals also don’t know how the laws will be applied. Lawyers typically will instruct institutions to interpret the law as conservatively as possible, and physicians may be equally conservative because they don’t want to risk their licenses or face stiff penalties.
“It’s just devastating for everybody,” Suter said. “It’s just cruel.”
Molly Meegan, general counsel for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said state laws to restrict abortion with emergency exceptions are not comprehensive.
“They can’t be applied in a medical situation. They just aren’t practical,” she said. “They have an ethical and personal duty to their patients to do what is best for their patients. It can at times be in direct conflict with whatever the laws are, especially if they’re vague, and most of the ob/gyns throughout the country, including in Oklahoma, are in an impossible situation.”
Meegan and Suter both believe the confusion will lead to the deaths of more women. Those who survive may be left with dire health problems, including losing the ability to have children in the future.
“They already have horrific maternal mortality and infant mortality rates,” Suter said. “It feels like the end of evidence-based medicine.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oklahoma persistently ranks among the states with the worst rates of maternal deaths, even before the new abortion laws went into effect. The state had a maternal mortality rate of 25.2 deaths per 100,000 live births for 2018-20, well above the national average.
For communities of color, the rate is significantly worse, according to the Oklahoma Health Department.
White women had 23.2 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births for 2018-20, the lowest rate overall in Oklahoma. The rates for Black women and Native American women were about twice as high: 49.4 and 44.4, respectively.
Oklahoma is not alone. The 13 states where most abortions are banned generally have some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the country, Heisler said. Even more states could be restricting abortion access soon, the experts believe, with potentially more problems to come.
“The hostile climate many states are creating for the health care field by enacting criminal and other penalties for abortion care is an outcome whose reverberations we are only just beginning to see,” said Kelly Baden, vice president for public policy at the reproductive health nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.
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Heisler noted that the researchers don’t blame the hospitals or the doctors for this confusion. Overall, she said, the staffers who talked to the researchers “were wonderful,” despite the circumstances.
“They were empathetic. They said, ‘I completely understand.’ They tried to give answers. They acted in good faith. But really, none of the hospitals were really able to say what we were hoping for, which is to unequivocally state that they would stand behind their clinicians and that clinicians at their facilities would be able to use their best clinical judgment for the individual case and that it would be made as medical decisions should be in collaboration with the patient, taking into account to their needs, their preferences and their values,” she said.
“We are recognizing that hospitals and clinicians are in an untenable situation,” Heisler added.