Lessons from the Defeat of the Oklahoma Personhood Bill

Why did SB-1433, the Oklahoma personhood bill, die? Until very recently, most people watching the bill expected it to pass. It passed the senate, it passed the house Public Health and Safety Committee, and Governor Mary Fallin had said that she would sign every piece of pro-life legislation that crossed her desk. [Disclosure: As I’ve mentioned before in my coverage of SB-1433, I live in Oklahoma and have participated, in a volunteer capacity, in efforts to keep SB-1433 from becoming law.] Archbishop Coakley of Oklahoma wrote this letter to all the priests in his diocese urging them to advocate for SB-1433 at Mass on the Sunday before the anticipated floor fight.

Well, there was a fight, but SB-1433 was never heard, and now the deadline has expired. In the aftermath, it seems to me that two factors contributed to the bill’s defeat: 1) Deep disagreement, between the personhood movement and more mainstream pro-life Oklahoma voters and legislators, on the advisability of amendments to the bill; and 2) The development of ill will between the personhood lobby and the Republican representatives.

To recap: In the past few weeks, Oklahoma house Republicans have been heavily lobbied by both Oklahomans for Life and Personhood Oklahoma (a state affiliate of Personhood USA). Those groups firmly opposed any amendment to the bill — even amendments that would protect access to IVF and birth control, and would clarify that women with life-threatening pregnancies could still receive treatment. Nevertheless, some supporters of the bill continued to claim that SB-1433 was nothing more than a statement of pro-life principles and wouldn’t affect Oklahomans’ access to assisted reproduction, emergency medical treatment, and their chosen form of birth control.

The problem for personhood supporters, though, is that amendments started to seem like a very good idea to some key parties: Oklahomans who formed Facebook pages and called their legislators because they were concerned about SB-1433, organizations like Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice who did their own lobbying, and ultimately a good number of legislators themselves. It seems that’s when the personhood battle really became a power struggle between the personhood lobby and the Republican leadership. With so many amendments and so much public controversy surrounding the bill, the Republican leadership opted not to bring the bill forward. This raised the ire of Personhood USA and Oklahomans for Life, who continued to lobby for its passage. Personhood USA responded immediately with a press release calling Speaker Steele’s actions unforgiveable. This… er… did not improve the relationship between the personhood lobby and the Republican leadership.

Meanwhile, on April 24, the House voted in strong support of HR 1054, a resolution that affirmed that “ ‘person’ means a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception, regardless of age, health, level of functioning, or condition of dependency[.]” As HR1054 was discussed on the floor, its sponsor, Rep. Vaughan, wept openly as he exhorted his fellow legislators to support the non-binding resolution. But HR1054 had no legal ramifications: it was not a bill to change the state legal code, as was SB-1433. It also stipulated that the bill would not apply to in vitro fertilization.

Well, if any legislators believed this would give them cover, they were mistaken. The pro-personhood folks made it known that a a representative would be bringing a procedural motion to force hearing on SB-1433. Oklahomans for Life sent this memo to house Republicans, stating that they would be tracking votes on the procedural motion and that any representative who voted against it would be counted as having a “pro-abortion vote on that member’s record.” That’s when the speaker-designate, TW Shannon — NOT the current Speaker Steele, the one whose actions Personhood USA had called “unforgiveable” – became so angry that he sent Kevin Calvey, state vice chairman of Oklahomans for Life, an email stating that Calvey:

not only disrespected this institution, but you have also demonstrated an utter lack of professionalism and integrity. Your credibility has been damaged to the point that I respectfully request that you do not lobby my office, and you remove me from your correspondence list.

At that point, it seemed unlikely that a procedural vote was likely to be successful —and indeed it wasn’t. Rep. Mike Reynolds tried twice to force a hearing on SB-1433. The first time he did not have the standing seconds necessary to appeal the chair’s ruling. The second time he was told by the chair that he was out of order, and in short order began shouting and was threatened with removal by the chair. Personhood USA has posted a video of the fracas to their YouTube channel with the title “Treason Against Pro-Lifers in OK.”

So that’s where things stand. There’s still a ballot initiative in the works in Oklahoma, but the legislative defeat is remarkable for a couple of reasons.

First, the defeat of SB-1433 is yet another data point suggesting that full legal rights for fetuses is a step too far even for many who consider themselves pro-life — precisely because of the possible unintended consequences.

Perhaps the pro-choice cognate is the position which holds that nobody may ever raise a moral objection to any abortion ever, not even a theoretical abortion, and not even if that objection is offered with no attendant desire to legally enforce it. (Not that my experience is normative, but I’ve only ever met two people who stated outright that they held this, for what it’s worth. I’ve encountered far more people who wish to paint all pro-choice people with that brush.) The fact is, a whole lot of Americans find some abortions morally troubling, but are also troubled about the consequences of government intrusion into women’s reproductive decisionmaking. Which is a pretty nuanced way to look at, and it’s not one that is immediately friendly to personhood legislation.

Secondly, it raises the question of whether we shall see a more general pushback against national groups picking states as laboratories for their legislation. If Oklahoma Republicans wind up galvanized against Personhood USA and Oklahomans for Life, is it possible that another red state’s legislature could become galvanized against, say, ALEC? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes surprising events are flukes. Sometimes they’re the start of a trend.

Finally, it’s interesting that SB-1433 enjoyed such strong support from Archbishop Coakley of Oklahoma City, considering that the Mississippi bishops had been far more ambivalent during that state’s recent personhood battle. This could mean any number of things, of course: from the simple and unsurprising non-news that sometimes people with the same job disagree with each other; to the possibility that personhood legislation is an unsettled question for US Catholic bishops; to the question of whether the bishops’ national fight with the Obama administration over contraception coverage has hardened their other positions on incipient human life. It would be premature to draw conclusions on any of these issues, but they are certainly worth watching.