UPDATED: Oklahoma Personhood Bill Not Dead…

Update below

Oklahoma bill SB-1433—the so-called personhood bill, backed by Personhood USA and Oklahomans for Life—is dead. 

According to a press release sent out minutes ago by Speaker Kris Steele’s office, the bill will not come up for a vote:

The House Republican Caucus voted today not to hear the personhood bill on the House floor. This decision was not made unilaterally, but as a caucus collectively. I accept the will of our caucus. The fact is this bill sends a statement Oklahoma has already made. We’re already perhaps the most pro-life state in this country, having passed at least 30 various pro-life measures in the past eight years alone. You will not find a bigger friend of the unborn than this Legislature, but this bill would not have any substantive policy effect.

This was somewhat unexpected. (Disclosure: I live in Oklahoma and have worked, in a volunteer capacity, to keep SB-1433 from becoming law.) Granted, even Mississippi voters rejected a personhood amendment. But that was a ballot initiative. This was a bill in the legislature. And since most of the Oklahoma legislature is pro-life and Republican, days ago the bill was expected to pass. This, even though it was in some ways the most pared-down and unflinching personhood bill yet: the bill would amend the legal code to treat fetuses as persons at all stages of biological development.

So what happened?

Well, there was opposition, of course. People got nervous about the things that generally make a lot of people nervous about giving legal rights to fertilized eggs. What about in vitro fertilization? What about ectopic pregnancies? What about the liability of medical providers? The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Brian Crain of Tulsa and Rep. Lisa Billy of Purcell, and its supporters said that it was just intended to signify that Oklahoma was a pro-life state, and that the language was the same as language in Missouri that had been found to be constitutional. (More on that in a moment.) They tried to assure everyone that SB-1433 wouldn’t threaten IVF or women with life-threatening pregnancies.  

But many Oklahomans, and more to the point many legislators, found such lack of clarity. Sen. Doug Cox, who criticized other members of the Public Health committee for their unwillingness to put their reassurances in writing, proposed a number of amendments. So did other legislators, such that by the time SB-1433 was scheduled to be voted on, it was groaning under the weight of amendments. 

But the real turnaround came when Speaker Steele proposed an amendment to an amendment that, in essence, would have given teeth to the reassurances that the Oklahoma bill would do no more than the Missouri language. That (opens in MS Word) stated:

The provisions of this section shall be subject to the Constitution of the United States, and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court and specific provisions to the contrary in the statutes and constitution of this state.

In fact, that proviso is equivalent to part of the Missouri language that was upheld by Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. So if SB-1433 was meant to do exactly the same as the Missouri language, that should be no problem, right? In fact, it pretty much guarantees that it will function as a simple statement, and won’t radically rewrite the Oklahoma legal code in ways that are controversial and alarming to many Oklahomans. 

Yes, well. For whatever reason, that amendment was not palatable to the groups backing SB-1433. Last night, Personhood USA posted a statement calling it “unforgivable” that Steele had not called for a floor vote on SB-1433 that day—the first day that it would have been up for a floor vote anyway, and for a bill that was already controversial. Meanwhile, representatives from Oklahomans for Life began circulating a discharge petition: a bit of maneuvering which, if signed by enough legislators, would have forced a floor vote over the objections of the Speaker and Floor Leader.

Well, how well do you think that endeared the bill’s supporters to the party leadership? I suppose one has to consider the possibility that Speaker Steele and Floor Leader Dewitt are superhuman in their charity. Perhaps Speaker Steele was utterly unmoved by being insulted in a press release. Perhaps the Republican leadership didn’t so much care that lobbyists were trying to do an end-run around the speaker and floor leader with their discharge petition. But regardless, in short order Rep. Mike Reynolds was quoted in the Tulsa World saying that “a major state organization has said [SB-1433] will make Oklahoma look like a backward state.” (To me, that sounds like the state Republican party, but obviously that’s just a guess because vague language is vague.) And finally, this afternoon, the statement from Speaker Steele that the House Republican Caucus thinks that they’ve made plenty of pro-life statements, thanks, and so they’ll pass on this one.

This is a bad defeat for the personhood movement. What this means is that their ballot initiative strategy failed in very conservative Mississippi, and now their strategy of getting legislators to sponsor personhood bills has failed in very conservative Oklahoma. They’ve spent a not inconsiderable sum of money in Oklahoma, and it looks as though they may have ticked off some Republicans in the process. But being conciliatory in the next go-round (i.e. being more open to amendments, say, in whatever state becomes the new personhood legislation laboratory) carries dangers. The whole selling point of the personhood position, for those who take to it, is its uncompromising nature: a fetus at any stage of development is a legal, rights-bearing person. Full stop, no exceptions. A person is a person, the end.

To be open to compromise, amendments, and qualifications is to undercut the distinctive thing about the movement. It’s what prompts some people to get on the personhood bandwagon, and to donate money. But the personhood’s failure to be open to any such compromise seems, at least in Mississippi and now Oklahoma, to alienate even those who are otherwise staunchly opposed to abortion. With no victories to report—either in Mississippi and Oklahoma, for heaven’s sake!—the personhood movement faces an uncertain future.

Others, though, are breathing a sigh of relief. Atlee Breland, of Parents Against Personhood (and past RD contributor) told me that her organization is “so pleased that the Oklahoma Legislature chose not to pass personhood legislation. The extraordinary number of amendments to this bill makes it clear that the medical issues involved with infertility treatment, contraception, and pregnancy care are far too complex, and that medical decisions and family building are best left to doctors and patients. Personhood is an issue that goes far beyond abortion, and we’re very relieved that Oklahoma has chosen to trust families and doctors.”

UPDATE: Unbelievable! After lots of media outlets—including me, here—declared it dead, SB-1433 is showing signs of life. Whoops. Apparently, some pro-personhood folks have come up with a strategy to force a vote tomorrow (tuesday) in the capitol. Someone—will it be Mike Reynolds? Or Randy Terrill?—is expected make a motion to force a vote. Then there will be a roll call vote to force SB-1433 to be heard, and if it’s heard it is expected to pass… maybe with Speaker Steele’s amendment, maybe not. Rumor on the hill is that the Republican leadership and caucus are highly ticked off. Anti-personhood groups are scrambling to keep up, but this was so sudden, and so unexpected, that for good or ill, it will likely be decided tomorrow morning.

sarah.morice.brubaker@ptstulsa.edu'

Sarah Morice-Brubaker is an assistant professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to writing for RD, she’s also written for The Christian Century, Dialogic Magazine, and Faith and Leadership. She has a chapter in the forthcoming edited volume from Ashgate, Placing Nature on the Borders of Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics.