AG's office, state boards craft guidance for doctors, law enforcement on abortion laws

Both the Oklahoma attorney general's office and the state's medical boards have crafted guidance meant to shed light on how Oklahoma's multiple abortion laws should be interpreted by doctors and law enforcement agencies.

Abortions in Oklahoma essentially ceased about three months ago, when Oklahoma banned the procedure at any point during pregnancy.

Since then, Oklahoma has taken several other steps to outlaw abortions, including two laws that make it a crime to perform the procedure. Opponents of the laws have called them contradictory and confusing in lawsuits seeking to get them blocked.

Guidance for law enforcement

Attorney General John O'Connor issued a memo Wednesday addressed to all Oklahoma law enforcement agencies, urging them to pursue criminal prosecution of anyone who performs, attempts to perform or helps perform an elective abortion in the state.

The laws don't allow for prosecution of someone seeking or obtaining an abortion, the attorney general's memo emphasized. They also don't apply to unintentional miscarriages, miscarriage management, treatment for ectopic pregnancies, in vitro fertilization, or the use of contraception, including Plan B.

"In short, law enforcement should focus on ensuring that abortion-on-demand has ended in Oklahoma," the attorney general's memo reads. "And information available at present indicates that it has indeed ended."

When Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, O'Connor quickly set Oklahoma's longstanding criminal abortion ban into effect. That law had been on the books since 1910 but hadn't been enforced when Roe was the law of the land. The state also pulled licenses from the state's abortion clinics the same day.

Another law, Senate Bill 612, went into effect last week and allows for harsher penalties against anyone who provides an abortion: up to 10 years in prison or fines up to $100,000.

The Oklahoma State Medical Association said in response to the AG's memo that the organization appreciated his efforts to "clarify the situation with several poorly written and contradictory laws on the books."

"We are reviewing the guidance and will work diligently to educate our members and ensure they are able to practice the best possible health care while complying with state law," the association said in a statement.

Medical boards' guidance

Oklahoma's state medical boards are also developing guidance meant to help the state's doctors understand and practice within the bounds of the state’s laws banning abortion.

The state Board of Osteopathic Examiners, which governs licensing for osteopathic doctors (DOs), released a draft of the guidance last week. The guidance could change before it is finalized, but the draft sheds light on how the state’s multiple laws — some that create criminal penalties for health care providers and others that are civil statutes — will factor in doctors’ decisions.

The draft guidance advises doctors to operate as though there’s only one exception under Oklahoma’s abortion laws: to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.

While one of the state’s civil abortion bans, House Bill 4327, does contain an exception allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest, so long as the crimes are reported to law enforcement, other bans in effect carry no such exception.

The document also offers guidance for caring for people who have health conditions that make pregnancy high-risk. Per the guidance, “best practice is to (1) strive to preserve the life of both the pregnant woman and her unborn child: (2) monitor and wait until a manifestation of a medical emergency exists before attempting an abortion, should one be deemed necessary.”

The guidance “is a perfect example of the horrifying effects of these laws,” said Priya Desai, who works with the Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, an organization leading several legal challenges against Oklahoma’s abortion laws.

“They're trying to do the best that they can within the confines they have,” Desai said, but the laws put doctors “in between a rock and a hard place.”

When it comes to criminal prosecution, the attorney general's office told law enforcement agencies that doctors "should be given substantial leeway" to treat life-threatening or emergency conditions in pregnant patients, "so long as they are not unnecessarily terminating the life of the unborn child or abusing their position intentionally to facilitate elective abortions."

More: Oklahoma City library releases guidelines on patrons seeking abortion information

Michael Leake, executive director of the Oklahoma Board of Osteopathic Examiners, said the board wanted to offer guidance to doctors as a way to summarize how Oklahoma’s laws governing abortion have changed in recent months.

“Our doctors deserve to have as clear as possible an understanding of what's expected of them in areas of law such as abortion or pain management,” he said in an August interview.

The board is expected to vote on the drafted guidelines in September. The board meets Sept. 15, according to its website.

Leake said he hopes the board’s allopathic counterpart — the Oklahoma State Board of Medical Licensure And Supervision, which handles licensing for medical doctors (MDs) — will adopt matching guidelines.

“My anticipation is that we will all have the same guidance,” Leake said.

The director of the Oklahoma Medical Board declined to comment on the board’s drafted guidelines before they are reviewed and approved.

'Aiding and abetting' explained

Those who "aid or abet" someone in obtaining an illegal abortion could also be subject to prosecution. But merely advocating in favor of abortion wouldn't fall under that definition because of constitutional free speech rights, according to the attorney general's office.

"District attorneys and law enforcement should entirely refrain from investigating or prosecuting persons engaging in general advocacy of in favor of abortion," the office said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma AG issues guidance on state abortion bans for law enforcement