Conservative Rep Grills Oklahoma Personhood Sponsors

I feel the need to commend someone with whom I probably disagree on many matters of consequence: Oklahoma state representative Dr. Doug Cox.

As you may know, Personhood USA has lately set its sights on Oklahoma in the group’s ongoing effort to find some state willing to pass legislation defining fertilized embryos as legal, rights-bearing persons. (Disclosure: I live in Oklahoma and have been involved, in a volunteer capacity, in some of the efforts to defeat this legislation.)

Personhood USA appears to have learned one lesson from its recent loss in Mississippi: ballot initiatives carry risks, and payoffs, that bills in the legislature don’t. In Oklahoma, therefore, they’re trying for both a bill and, later, a ballot initiative. (Surprisingly, they don’t seem to have considered that it might be unwise to brag about how much out-of-state money they’re spending in the hopes of changing Oklahoma’s laws, but I suppose we’ll have to see whether that comes back to bite them.)

In any event, SB-1433, Oklahoma’s so-called “personhood” bill was recently passed by the House Public Health Committee. And the comments of Rep. Cox, a member of the committee and one of only two doctors in the entire legislature, display real integrity. Of course, to see why, you have to slog through the incredibly depressing details of the committee’s discussion. As the Tulsa World reports:

Its House sponsor, Rep. Lisa Billy, said SB 1443 is simply a “statement of purpose” that recognizes what she called “the irrefutable scientific fact that life begins at conception.”

Billy assured the committee that in its current version the bill would not change existing abortion law or interfere with medical research, in vitro fertilization or any other medical or scientific procedure that now is legal…

An amendment by Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, to “put into writing exactly what Rep. Billy said” was tabled by a 7-4 vote.

“Why would a person be willing to stand up and say these things and not be willing to put it in writing?” he asked.

Why indeed? And it’s particularly odd if you take the bill’s sponsors at their word that SB-1433 is just a “statement of purpose.” This is the line that Rep. Billy and Sen. Brian Crain, the sponsors of SB-1433, have both taken, and it strikes me as more and more bizarre the more I hear it. If the bill is intended only to express a certain position, and if Billy and Crain are both confident that that position leaves birth control and IVF alone… well, why not say that? A “statement of purpose” would, one presumes, be a great place to… oh, I dunno… STATE YOUR PURPOSE. Guys, it’s not like there’s a maximum word count.

Unless… could it have something to do with what Irin Carmon reported in Salon: that Colorado-based Personhood USA has threatened to withdraw support if the Oklahoma bill is amended at all?

Well, probably. In fact, despite the fact that it seems poised for a floor vote, and despite the likelihood that Governor Mary Fallin would sign it into law, I think SB-1433 is in danger of becoming a political hot potato.

The die-hard “personhood” position—which holds that not just life, but legal rights, begin at some poorly-understood “moment of fertilization”—is not a position all pro-life people are comfortable with. And it’s not hard to understand why: What of women with life-threatening pregnancies? Does the fetus get legal representation? Will its competing claim to the woman’s circulatory system be argued before a judge? Will the doctor be prevented from acting in the meantime? And what of frozen embryos? Will they have inheritance rights? Will reproductive endocrinologists be brought up on charges if they freeze embryos and some are destroyed, as routinely happens? And miscarriages: will they be investigated? Will they require coroner’s reports and death certificates? It’s entirely possible to think abortion is wrong, while still being bothered by the potential consequences of turning blastocyst-Americans into legal rights-bearing persons.

But meanwhile, those who are most invested in getting a personhood bill passed won’t be pleased with any exception or compromise. They’re hoping personhood legislation will get them a court challenge that results in Roe v. Wade being overturned. So conservative legislators are caught in the middle, and the voters themselves are… well… making phone calls and holding marches, because what else is there to do? (When I called the office of one member of the Public Health Committee to register my opposition to SB-1433, the staffer on the phone said, “Goodness, it seems like everyone in Oklahoma is calling.” I wearily replied that most of the calls must be in support of the bill, right? “Oh, no,” she said. “Against it.” That representative ended up voting in favor of the bill. Ah well.)

But when you’re caught in the middle, it’s probably best to do what Rep. Cox has done: act with integrity and consider the consequences of what you’re saying. Bravo, Rep. Cox. I don’t know whether, between the two of us, we could find more than a handful of positions that we agree on, but thank you for taking your job seriously, and for trying to keep your constituents foremost in your mind.

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