Abortion sign law faces uncertain future without funding

Sen. A.J. Griffin

OKLAHOMA CITY — A new law that received overwhelming legislative support only a few weeks ago already faces a questionable future after lawmakers apparently failed to fund it.

The measure, which lawmakers declared as an “emergency" before passing it unanimously, was supposed to go into effect July 1.

“I’m excited,” said state Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie, earlier in the week. “Anytime we can link pregnant women to prenatal care, we not only reduce the chances of abortions, but as importantly, or more importantly, we encourage healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and healthy moms.”

The measure, which was co-authored by Griffin and state Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, would require Oklahoma abortion providers and medical professionals making such referrals to post signage letting women know “there are public and private agencies willing and able to help you carry your child to term, have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby and assist you and your child after your child is born. … The State of Oklahoma strongly encourages you to contact them if you are pregnant.”

Under the same measure, lawmakers promised to budget specific funds to the state’s Health Department so it could create and promote a website listing the agencies and services available.

“The crux of the bill is to encourage the Health Department to provide those resources in as accessible a way as possible,” Griffin said, adding that not only includes those services offered by county health departments but ones available through crisis pregnancy centers.

But the Health Department’s lawyers determined lawmakers did not set aside the funds required, which means “this will not be done,” wrote agency spokesman Tony Sellars in an email Friday.

“The Legislature will need to specifically appropriate funds to (the state Health Department) to perform its duties under the act,” Sellars said. “To my knowledge, that did not occur this most recent legislative session.”

Griffin said the program was meant to be funded as part of the agency’s general health promotions.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, slashed the Health Department’s total allocations by nearly 3.5 percent for the upcoming budget year.

Enns did not return messages left with his office seeking comment.

Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Oklahoma City’s South Wind Women’s Center, just one of three abortion clinics in the state, said her clinic — at its own expense — already has posted the new signs in their waiting rooms, even though they don’t agree with the new law.

“There are some women who cannot or do not want to continue a pregnancy, so I think that’s where the real rub is,” she said. “I feel like with the language that is presented, it puts people in a box. Pregnancy, childbearing, childrearing is not definitely a one-size-fits-all.”

She said the measure implies “there is sufficient assistance for everyone that might be pregnant,” when in reality Oklahoma and private agencies don’t have enough money to provide all the necessary resources to those who want to continue a pregnancy and raise a child.

Burkhart’s group also operates an abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan. Though that state requires similar signs be posted, Burkhart said they have never deterred a patient from getting an abortion.

Burkhart said she’d expect a similar outcome here.

“I think the decision lies in a woman’s heart, and if she wants to have a baby, then she’s going to have a baby,” she said.

She is concerned, though, that the new law could have a negative impact on the state’s doctors who provide prenatal care to women and occasionally suggest patients abort pregnancies when fetuses are diagnosed with abnormalities or a mother’s life is in jeopardy.

“Hopefully, this will not have a chilling effect on physicians who are looking out for the patients that they’re serving,” she said.

A spokeswoman with the Oklahoma State Medical Association, which represents doctors, said the group did not have a position on the new law.

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