As It Happens

What it's like running an abortion clinic in Oklahoma, where almost all abortions are illegal

Andrea Gallegos is executive administrator of the Tulsa Women's Clinic in Oklahoma, a state that recently banned abortions in almost all cases.

The state has banned all abortions except for rape, incest, or to save the patient's life

A room with an empty hospital bed and an ultrasound machine.
Earlier this year, the Tulsa Women's Clinic was overflowing with patients, both from within Oklahoma and Texas. Now, it's mostly empty as staff try their best to redirect patients to abortion providers in other states. (Submitted by Andrea Gallegos/Tulsa Women's Clinic)

Andrea Gallegos has spent the last few weeks making some of the most difficult phone calls of her life.

Gallegos is executive administrator of the Tulsa Women's Clinic in Oklahoma, a state that recently banned abortions in almost all cases.

That means she's spending a lot of time calling patients to cancel their appointments and refer them to clinics out of state — many of which, she says, are already working at capacity. 

"They were some of the hardest conversations I've had to have with patients," Gallegos told As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington. 

"There's a lot of shock and disbelief, anger [and] helplessness. 'Where am I supposed to go next? I can't afford to take off work. What about my other kids? I can't travel out of state.'"

Anti-abortion legislation has come hard and fast in Oklahoma, one of more than a dozen Republican-led states to place restrictions on the procedure in recent years

Oklahoma government first passed a law in late April banning all abortions after six weeks, a point at which many people don't yet know they're pregnant. When that happened, the state's two Planned Parenthood clinics stopped performing abortions, leaving just two providers up and running.

Then, in May, the state law banned all abortions from the moment of fertilization, with exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when it's necessary to save the life of the pregnant person. 

"It really felt like a target on our backs," Gallegos said. "We're already limiting abortion access … and then just to go that much further is blatantly unconstitutional and really cruel, honestly."

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has vowed to sign every piece of anti-abortion legislation that crosses his desk. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

But for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, it was a matter of keeping promises. Specifically, his promise to sign every piece of anti-abortion legislation that comes across his desk.

"From the moment life begins at conception is when we have a responsibility as human beings to do everything we can to protect that baby's life and the life of the mother," Stitt said in a statement. 

"That is what I believe and that is what the majority of Oklahomans believe."

Empty clinics

The Tulsa Women's Clinic is mostly empty these days. Staff have their hands tied legally, unable to do anything except perform sonograms and provide referrals to out-of-state clinics and organizations that can help fund and co-ordinate travel. 

But just a few months ago, it was bustling, as staff welcomed an influx of patients from Texas, which had earlier passed its own six-week abortion ban.

Two side-by-side photos show different angles of an office with empty chairs.
The clinic has been mostly empty since Oklahoma passed a law banning abortion in the vast majority of cases. Right now, the only procedure the clinic can offer is a sonogram. (Submitted by Angela Andrea Gallegos/Tulsa Women's Clinic)

When Oklahoma followed suit with its six-week ban, Gallegos had to start calling patients to cancel their appointments. 

"I personally made a lot of those phone calls and it was just absolutely devastating. I had patients beg me. Just beg," Gallegos.

The clinic kept working business as usual up until the very last minute, when the governor signed the law into effect on May 3. Gallegos says one woman called from the road the next day to let the clinic know she was running a bit late for her abortion appointment. She'd missed Gallegos's call the night before.

"I had to inform her that the law had changed," Gallegos said. "She let me know that she was pregnant due to a rape, and insisted that there must be something else, that this law must not apply to her."

The six-week ban, unlike the more recent legislation, did not have any exceptions for rape and incest.

"Unfortunately there was nothing we could do for her," Gallegos said.

What's next?

Right now, the Tulsa clinic staff is just waiting and hoping.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy group based in New York, has promised to challenge the latest Oklahoma abortion ban.

If the U.S. Supreme Court votes to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established abortion rights in the country, Gallegos figures abortion advocates will have a chance to turn back some of these restrictions. 

A selfie of a woman in glasses with her hair pulled back. She's smiling and wearing dangling, heart-shaped earrings.
Andrea Gallegos is the executive director of the clinic. (Submitted by Andrea Gallegos)

But if the court overthrows Roe v. Wade — as it indicated it would in a leaked draft ruling — a so-called "trigger law" will immediately come into effect in Oklahoma, making abortion a felony homicide, punishable by two to five years in prison. The only exception would be cases where the patient's life is in danger. 

If it comes to that, Gallegos says the Tulsa clinic will have to shut down. Sonograms and referrals aren't enough to keep the lights on.

"Abortions are what we do, we would not be able to continue if if Roe does fall," she said. "What we're doing now is not sustainable for the long term."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Andrea Gallegos produced by Leslie Amminson.

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