After the Oklahoma legislature passed a near-total abortion ban on Tuesday, the Signal spoke with Emily Wales, the Interim President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. After Senate Bill 8 was signed by Greg Abbott in September, Oklahoma absorbed the largest number of Texans seeking abortion care. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My understanding is that you just got wind of the abortion ban as the rally was happening at the Capitol. Did that move seem to take a lot of people by surprise?
We found out [Monday], the bill was on the agenda. So it’s not shocking at all to me that legislators who are opposed to abortion care wanted to make their own noise at the same time that they were being pushed from outside the Capitol to do the right thing.
In Texas, we’ve been living under Senate Bill 8 for over six months. I know clinics in Oklahoma have absorbed a lot of patients coming from Texas. How does this new legislation upend care for them and the Oklahomans that you see?
We’ve been serving more Texans in recent months than we have Oklahomans, and we want access to care for everyone wherever they call home. So this new ban is going to affect how we offer care, but it does look like of all the bans the legislature is moving, this is not one that has the Texas-style enforcement. There are multiple bites of the apple we’re seeing from the legislature, and this one we expect to likely challenge, hopefully to block. This is not at this point, the kind of ban that will immediately affect care. For us though, we have these other bans moving that are going to include this vigilante enforcement provision. So even with this one coming, there’s likely to be more to impact our services quicker.
When you first heard about the Texas law, which does have a vigilante component, were you concerned that something like that would also happen in Oklahoma?
We were very much concerned because we know that it is a race to the bottom. Among anti-choice politicians there’s a level of competition to be the most restrictive, the most punitive, the most stigmatizing. Oklahoma has done just that. Legislators here have not only created a copycat version of the Texas law, but they’ve also done a 30-day version, and an all-out version with Texas style enforcement to have the most restrictive law in the land if they can come up with it. Texas inspired a lot of extremely conservative politicians who are using the same misogynistic playbook, they’re just trying to better each other.
What do you anticipate are the next steps? I know you mentioned some legal challenges. For many Texans, Oklahoma was at least a lifeline. What are some of your fears now for patients that need care?
Patients are savvy, and they’re resilient, and they’re aware of what it looks like to get care across state lines. We also operate health centers in Arkansas and Kansas that provide abortion care. We are anticipating a significant increase in need in Kansas because like Oklahoma, it does not have the in-person requirement for the day one of the consent process. So there is a waiting period. There are restrictions, but it’s not as draconian as Arkansas. It will mean for many of the patients we’re seeing, a complete lack of access. And I think we have to be really clear about that. There are some people who will not be able to travel the extra five hours to get to the Kansas City area. They will either attempt to terminate their pregnancies without medical support or they will have to have pregnancies against their will. That’s going to be the reality. We already have patients on the phone now who are trying with our team members to figure out how they can make this process work to get the care they want. And for some people it doesn’t end in an appointment being made because it’s just so restrictive and overwhelming to patients to think about putting their lives on hold to get care that should be local.
In Texas, we’re starting to see a lot of the same politicians who pushed our Senate Bill Eight, trying to target abortion fund groups. Is that something that you’re also seeing in the places that you also work in?
We have seen a version of that in Missouri, where we have health centers that don’t provide abortion care. We had two abortion licenses in the last few years, both of which were lost due to state restrictions. Missouri has been a bit of a preview, I think of the Texas restrictions where care is completely inaccessible for many of the people who live there. In Missouri this year there was a proposal that didn’t go anywhere, but we’re watching it for next year, that would’ve made it illegal for providers to give care to Missourians out of state. And it wouldn’t just have said you can’t serve Missourians, but also you can’t even have a website that Missourians can access within the state.
This should be shocking to everyone. It didn’t move this year, but I think it completely gives the preview of what we anticipate seeing in the future. When states lose access to care, they will try to block their citizens from having those rights even in other states.
For those that attended the Oklahoma rally and might have been shocked about the legislature passing the abortion ban, what would be your advice or counsel?
The main advice would be to continue doing what they did [Tuesday], which is calling out the legislature and being open about the fact that these conversations have to start in public, and at the dinner tables with friends and family. We have to talk about the fact that people we know and love need abortion care or have had abortion care so that it doesn’t become this taboo. The patients who are coming to us now from Texas, they’re not only suffering in the travel and then the overnight stay, and the stress of hiding this, but they also are returning home feeling like their actions are criminal. And they can’t even tell their loved ones who could be supportive that they got care because they feel like they’re going to put their family and friends in danger if they tell them what they’ve done. And it’s not uncommon for patients to say ‘I think my mom or my partner would completely agree but I don’t want to put them at risk so I did this on my own.’
There are some blue states in our vicinity, I’m thinking of a place like New Mexico. What would you hope for those legislatures to look into doing?
The more protections, the better. I think this will come down to haves and have nots. States that have access should be proactive about ensuring that every single person who needs care within their borders has it available to them. In the region that we serve in the Great Plains, we also have Kansas, which does have a state level constitutional protection for abortion care. That’s under attack. We’re actually going to the ballot on August 2nd to keep abortion protected under the state constitution so that even if Roe fell, the state would not immediately lose access to care. But of course it’s up for a vote there for a reason. The legislature wants to do the same bans that we’re seeing in these really conservative states. So the people there are going be among the first in the country to vote and say, no you’ve gone too far and we do want people to access safe and legal abortion here at home.
On the federal level, is there anything that you wish you could hear from let’s say the White House?
It sends a message when you have national leaders say that people in every single state deserve the same level of protection. But there are limits to what I think elected officials can do when the Supreme Court has failed to intervene in a law that is clearly unconstitutional in Texas. There’s no doubt that a six-week ban violates Roe. And yet here we are seven months into this crisis and every single day we have patients whose constitutional rights are violated in the state of Texas and they’re coming here to Oklahoma. Primarily what I would say is, it would be a change in the right direction for the Supreme Court to respect the Constitution and the people that it’s designed to protect, and actually make decisions that protect those who need care from the people in the legislature who are passing bans that are not focused on the people they’re supposed to serve.
And is there anything else that you’d like to add about what happened in Oklahoma and what’s happening in the future?
I think today was the first step in many ways. We are anticipating the loss of Roe as early as this summer. And for us it has been a final backstop of blocking laws that directly violate people’s rights. People can’t just come to the Capitol on one day and speak out, they have to do it every single day and know that this fight is going to be a long one. But I do think history goes in the direction of increasing protections and access and holding up individuals. And that’s the fight we’re in, and it won’t be resolved today or tomorrow. But I want my children to have the rights that my grandmother fought for, and that my mother enjoyed, and that have been taken from me in a number of the states we serve.
Original photo: Kai Medina / Wikimedia Commons
A longtime writer and journalist, Jessica was thrilled to join the Texas Signal where she could utilize her unique perspective on politics and culture. As the Features and Opinion Editor, she is responsible for coordinating editorials and segments from diverse authors. She is also the host of the podcast the Tex Mix, as well as the co-host for the weekly SignalCast. Jessica attended Harvard College, is a onetime fitness blogger, and has now transitioned to recreational runner (for which her joints are thankful).