Republican Caucus pulls personhood bill from Oklahoma House calendar

Senate Bill 1433 — a measure important to pro-life activists deemed “the Personhood Bill” — was pulled from the calendar in the Oklahoma House of Representatives today (Thursday, April 19). 

Republican leaders took the measure off the schedule after a Republican Caucus meeting opposed floor consideration of the measure. Barring an unexpected reversal, the measure is dead for this year. In February, the state Senate had passed the proposal 34-8. 

Today’s action came just a few hours after the lower chamber voted overwhelmingly to send another pro-life measure to Governor Mary Fallin for her signature.

Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, sent CapitolBeatOK the following statement regarding S.B. 1433:

“The Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice is gratified that S.B. 1433, the Personhood bill, is dead in the Legislature. This extreme bill had the potential to harm Oklahoma families by threatening contraception, assisted reproductive technologies and other necessary medical services.”

Skeeters continued, “We will continue to oppose any personhood proposals and to educate the public about their potentially harmful effects on the citizens of Oklahoma.”

Expressing deep disappointment, state Rep. Sally Kern of Oklahoma City, a Republican, said in a statement to CapitolBeatOK, “I am pro-life and do not agree with refusing to grant a floor hearing to any pro-life bill that has gained committee approval. 

“While I will abide by the caucus’ decision, I certainly was not among those opposing the bill. And I will continue fighting for the rights of the unborn.”
The legislation would have found that the “ “life of each human being begins at conception” and asserted the “laws of this state shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state.”
The proposal was certain to provoke a contentious floor debate. Nearly two dozen possible changes – most regarded as “killer amendments” – had been submitted by members, including state Rep. Doug Cox, a Grove Republican, and state Rep. Emily Virgin, a Norman Democrat. 

 Speaker of the House Kris Steele informed members of the Capitol press of the GOP House caucus decision Thursday afternoon. He stressed the decision was “not made unilaterally.”

He recently discussed the issue with state Rep. Lisa Billy, a passionate pro-life advocate, and said that she “understood there were strong feelings on both sides.” 

Steele noted the Legislature has passed 30 pro-life measures over the past eight years. While he thought the measure had “no substantive effect on public policy” — and that he would have supported it had a final vote been held — Steele told reporters many House members agreed with critics of the bill who asserted it would limit access to birth control and in virtro fertilization.

Advocates of the legislation had insisted its practical effect would be largely symbolic, in asserting pro-life sentiment in the state.

Steele revealed to reporters that his own study of the legislation had led him to conclude that it did not fully mirror a Missouri law that passed constitutional muster in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Webster decision (1989). The Shawnee Republican disclosed there was unease among some Republicans that the state would invite losing litigation if S.B. 1433 were enacted into law. 

Concerning rumors of an effort to force the measure onto the floor with a discharge petition, Steele explained the proposal had already cleared the committee process and would not be subject to the discharge process. In any case, “It was clear what the will of the caucus was.”

It is unclear what effect the demise of the statutory proposal might have on an initiative petition drive organized earlier this year by Personhood USA. That measure would amend the state constitution in ways that advocates of the initiative route contend would be more effective than the statutory route. 

Despite the setback on the statutory measure — a priority for Oklahomans for Life, the state’s leading pro-life advocacy group — Thursday morning the House approved (thereby sending to Governor Mary Fallin for her signature) Senate Bill 1274. The measure by state Sen. Dan Newberry and state Rep. Pam Peterson, both Tulsa Republicans, cleared the House 75-12. 

The Heartbeat Informed Consent Act, S.B. 1274, Peterson said, “ensures that a woman is given the opportunity to assess” information about the heartbeat of an unborn child at eight weeks of gestation or later. She said, “Our laws should not be stuck in the 1950s when it comes to medical issues.”

Peterson said, “It is important to ensure informed-consent rights. There’s a much greater array of medical data now available to women, and we should not allow them to be denied access to that knowledge.”

Peterson pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which a majority of the justices found: “In attempting to ensure that a woman apprehend the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed…”