Oklahoma close to becoming first state to enact 'personhood' bill

The organization Personhood USA has been leading state efforts to get a personhood bill made into law. Last year it was behind a similar referendum in Mississippi that eventually failed.

By , Staff writer

Oklahoma could become the first state to give individual rights to an embryo from the moment of conception. The state Senate, with a Republican majority, voted 34 to 8 Wednesday to approve a so-called personhood bill, which some say is an attempt to outlaw or restrict abortion rights. The legislation now moves to the state House, which is also controlled by Republicans.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has not publicly said whether she will sign the bill, but last year she signed into law a series of bills aimed at restricting the reproductive health choices of women.

As written, the new bill defines an unborn child as having “the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents” from the “moment of conception until birth at every stage of biological development.”

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Personhood USA, an antiabortion organization in Arvada, Colo., has been leading state efforts to get a personhood bill made into law. Last year it was behind a similar referendum in Mississippi that eventually failed. In almost every other state, it has launched petition drives for personhood amendments. These efforts are part of a wider strategy to get the US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

“What we’re seeing across America is a significant shift and a reinvigorated pro-life movement fighting to protect the right to life of every human being, at every age,” said Personhood USA president Keith Mason in a statement released Thursday.

Last year, Oklahoma passed seven laws or provisions related to limiting women’s reproductive health rights or abortion access – a tally that puts the state “at the forefront of abortion restriction,” according to Elizabeth Nash, a public-policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that promotes sexual and reproductive health rights.

"Oklahoma is a conservative pro-life state,” said state Sen. Brian Bingman (R) in a statement. “This bill is one of many Senate Republicans have advanced which affirms the right to life and I am proud to support it."

In 2011, more than 1,100 such pieces of legislation were introduced in the 50 states – a 17 percent increase from the 950 introduced the previous year. Of this proposed legislation, 135 laws were enacted in 36 states, a 52 percent increase from 89 in 2010.

Oklahoma state Sen. Brian Crain (R), who sponsored the current bill, said its passage is not about blocking access to contraception or preventing stem-cell research, and he added that it is not designed to ban abortion. “The unborn have no voice of their own,” Senator Crain told the Tulsa World Thursday.

Ms. Nash sees it differently. This legislation, she says, is a “backdoor approach to banning abortion, contraception, and some forms of infertility treatment,” based on the language surrounding the issue in other states. “To say that it isn’t about those things is a little odd,” she adds.

The Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice and the Oklahoma State Medical Association are both in opposition to the legislation, saying that defining a fertilized egg or an embryo as a person will jeopardize the doctor-patient relationship, because doctors fearing potential prosecution will discontinue performing in vitro fertilization procedures.

“Couples who wish to start a family using in vitro fertilization will be out of luck in Oklahoma,” said Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, in a statement. She described the bill as “government intrusion into the most private lives of Oklahomans” and “an attack on our basic freedoms.”

The bill includes a provision saying that women who miscarry will not be subject to legal action. If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the soonest it can become law is Nov. 1.

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