Oklahoma Supreme Court Unanimously Blocks Personhood Ballot Initiative *UPDATED*

Well. Count me surprised.

Days after the contentious defeat of SB-1433, an Oklahoma senate-sponsored fetal personhood bill that was allowed to expire without being heard, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a personhood ballot initiative on Monday. The ballot initiative would have expanded the definition of human being to include fertilized embryos. The court blocked it, saying it was “void on its face” because the Supreme Court of the United States had already decided the issue.

Personhood Oklahoma, a state affiliate of Personhood USA, filed the ballot initiative on March 1. If the initiative had not been blocked by the state Supreme Court, they would have had until the end of May to gather the 15,000 required signatures to have the measure appear as a state question. The initiative was similar to a proposed amendment that was rejected by Mississippi voters last year. When former presidential candidate Rick Santorum made a campaign stop in Oklahoma in March, he added his own signature to a draft version of the Oklahoma ballot initiative.

However, shortly after Personhood Oklahoma filed the ballot initiative, a lawsuit was brought forward by the the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Oklahoma, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, on behalf of six Oklahoma residents, a mix of healthcare professionals and anti-personhood advocates, many of whom were active in organizing opposition to SB-1433.

“We were a mixed group of activists, mothers, doctors, and people concerned with what Personhood would do to our state and willing to do what was needed to fight it in any way that we could,” said Brittany Mays Barber, one of the named plaintiffs.

“Based on past attempts by personhood interest groups, I’m sure the personhood question in our state is far from over. In other states where it has been defeated, I know that there have been attempts to raise it again. We may face it again here in Oklahoma, though I don’t know in what form it will be.”

I am glad the Supreme Court has ruled the personhood petition unconstitutional and grateful to have been a plaintiff,” said Martha Skeeters of Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, another of the plaintiffs.

“Personhood proposals are anti-family and anti freedom. They disregard the basic human right of being able to control one’s own reproductive capacity and maintain one’s own bodily integrity. By ending access to abortion, even for rape and incest survivors, they forbid women from exercising their own moral choices in difficult situations. By threatening contraceptives and treatments for infertility they discourage women and men from responsible family planning. Personhood proposals show how radical the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement really is in its desire to force its own religious ideology on all citizens.”

Some things to keep in mind about Oklahoma:

First, unlike most states, Oklahoma has two courts of last resort. There is the state Supreme Court, which decides on civil and constitutional law, and there is also the Court of Criminal Appeals, which has final say on all criminal matters. (Only Oklahoma and Texas work this way.) Justices are appointed to the state Supreme Court by the governor.

Second, although they are not term-limited, every six years voters choose whether or not to retain them. Currently, eight of the nine justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court were appointed by Democrat governors, the sole exception being justice James R. Winchester (who was appointed by Gov. Frank Keating). None of the sitting justices were appointed by Governor Mary Fallin, the current governor of Oklahoma and a self-avowed supporter of any legislation that seeks to restrict abortion.

Personhood representatives aren’t just disappointed, but indignant. Representative Dan Skerbitz described the ruling as representative of “judicial tyranny in Oklahoma.” (That’s some typical Personhood language—we saw fellow Personhood activist Dr. Patrick Johnson use the exact same phrase to describe an Ohio fetal heartbeat bill as not adequately anti-abortion.)

Skerbitz said the group will have to study the ruling before attorneys suggest a next move. But it’s getting more difficult for Personhood activists in Oklahoma to get traction, because they haven’t exactly been making nice in the legislature. Just weeks ago, they launched a media blitz in Oklahoma, presumably in the hopes of advancing the personhood through the legislature-sponsored bill or the ballot petition — if not both. Instead, the bill was allowed to expire without being heard by the house, and the ballot initiative was blocked. The only possible ground gained was a non-binding house resolution, HR 1054, affirming that personhood begins at conception — but having no legal implications. Meanwhile, there has now been a very public battle between highly-placed house Republicans and Oklahomans for Life — a major state pro-life organization whose chairman, Tony Lauinger, is vice president of National Right to Life.

What happens now? Perhaps the national personhood movement will set its sights on other states, or perhaps it will try to send judges a lesson by encouraging Oklahoma voters to vote “no” on judicial retention.

One regional news outlet suggests that pro-lifers might ask the Legislature to put the issue on a statewide ballot. As for the Oklahoma pro-life movement, well… the bad blood between Republicans and pro-life activists is startling, and it’s hard to say what the fallout will be. Whether or not Oklahomans for Life recedes from prominence, I think one organization that will gain ascendancy is the Oklahoma Abolitionist Society, a religious, youthful, media-savvy group out of Norman, OK which likens abortion to slavery. The slick images on their website and Facebook page diagnose mainstream culture as a perverted mess of pride and comfort, as they exhort people to repent and give up everything in the name of faithfulness. Not a new theme, but one with real resonance, especially among young people. (Now compare that to the web presence of Oklahomans for Life.)

It seems like some kind of realignment may be in the works, but it’s too soon to say who will be aligned with whom.

UPDATE: According to a Personhood USA press release, the organization intends to appeal the decision at the US Supreme Court level—a move which they hope will result in overturning Roe. Some anti-abortion lawyers have suggested this will backfire, and that the Supreme Court may adopt an even more pro-choice posture. We’ll be watching what happens next.

katie.toth@gmail.com'

RD editorial assistant Katie Toth is a Canadian journalist and disability activist. She became involved in the struggle for accessible reproductive health care in Atlantic Canada when she began her undergraduate degree at the University of King's College, Halifax.